But perhaps you weren’t sold on the value of the Man Booker Prize by our aptly picked Wiki quotes and our guessing the plots of recent nominees by their titles. Perhaps you shook your head and said, “I’ve never even HEARD of these books. How can they possibly have been nominated for an important literary award?” Or perhaps you simply decided that your enjoyment of Culture goes only so far as Downton Abbey.
Yeah . . . we’re kind of with you.
Especially because Booker Prize commendations are notoriously unreliable. Susan has completed 13 Booker nominees and winners, and her average rating for them is 3.3 out of 5. She's not the only dissatisfied reader: many of the Booker selections have average ratings in the low 3 range on Goodreads. Considering that the prize is awarded to the best novel of the year by a nation ever having belonged to the Commonwealth of Nations, this could mean that a third (!) of the world is publishing lackluster literature at its best.
Since we all know that literature has not died in the 45 years of the award’s existence, that theory is clearly wrong.
As far as we can tell, based on the generally uneven books given this prize, the chief enjoyment of the Man Booker may not be for readers to match wits with the judges and determine what the “best novel” eligible is; it is more pleasant to determine how the biases of the judges play out in declaring a winner. The Booker has a rich history of juicy controversy, from awarding only elitist books to awarding books that are not elitist enough. Our favorite scandal might be that Life of Pi received press for appropriating a basic plot outline from a Brazilian novel. The Daily Beast introduces some of the most public controversies associated with the prize, and a Poetry Foundation blog asserts that the Man Booker judges award books for using a combination of tropes.
The unfairness of the judging (point 6 in the Daily Beast piece) is so notorious (Susan has heard about shady quid pro quo from people familiar with a judge almost every time she’s brought the prize up in conversation—lesson being: don’t praise Bookers near your lit professors) that we can only guess that the Booker’s continued influence means that other awards have equally dubious judging.
They also most likely involve less posh award banquets:
Held at Guildhall, a 600-year-old building "designed to reflect the importance of London's ruling elite"
And the ultimate sign of just how prestigious this prize is...
This year's longlist was in the form of a royal birth announcement.
Booker Prize Olympics, The Second Event
Let's meet the new members of the Booker family, Balderdash style. (This means that we initially looked at covers and sent each other our guesses of what the plots of the nominees were. Real answers are abridged from the official Man Booker synopses. Some of our guesses were very close to the real plot descriptions; some were just very close to each other. Play along; answers will be at the end!)
- An unreliable narrator recounts in hallucinatory prose the strange events in her life that have always occurred after an encounter with the same mysterious (and perhaps imaginary) Japanese child.
- Ruth discovers a diary, possibly washed ashore from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl, and contains a mystery. In Tokyo a young woman navigates the challenges of modern life and family mysteries through a diary.
- A woman grieving for her sister recalls the stories they used to tell as children playing with their porcelain dolls. The doll’s shattered arm is a symbol.
- A semi-Hungarian Londoner tries to fit in at a traditional English public school, while her immigrant mother deals with her own painful secrets.
- An alien comes down to Earth with the mysterious ability to speak a language eerily similar to, but not quite, English. It takes on the appearance of a young girl and enrolls in a London public school in an attempt to master both the language and the nuances human interactions.
- An immigrant realizes how much she has changed since entering England as she fights to get her son into an elite public school.
- A wealthy hotel owner learns true wealth is getting know some of his eccentric clients.
- The Five Star Billionaire's lessons for success unsettle the dynamics of four disparate lives in China.
- A man becomes involved in a deal with numerous publishing outlets wherein he is compensated for writing five star reviews of all of their books. Many years later, after he has made a fortune as a result of this agreement, he wonders whether compromising his integrity and taste was truly worth it.
- A man sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbors held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .
- In this horror story, a sheaf of wheat recounts his golden days waving in the Midwestern breeze, followed by the harrowing reaping of all of his friends and family members at the hands of cruel, heartless farmers and their scythes.
- Against a landscape of WWII bombings, a British farmer focuses on his crops in an attempt to ignore how much the world is changing around him.
- A military camp in Iraq is being converted for civilian use when there is an explosion and an attack on a regional government office. One worker has disappeared and over fifty million dollars of reconstruction funds are missing. As the camp tries to restore order and get revenge, there is a murder in Italy that reduplicates a well-known novel.
- A retrospective on the beloved musical group.
- A spy questions the morality of his latest mission and looks back on his long career of assassination.
- A disgraced bank executive trades in his suit for some waders and sets out on a walkabout in the Everglades, befriending an alligator, a manatee, and a roseate spoonbill who help him begin to know himself and realize his true purpose in life.
- In India a communist zealot looks for peace after participating in armed assaults on wealthy patricians of his city.
- Two Indian brothers' lives diverge as one becomes drawn to the Communist movement and the other moves to America to pursue a PhD. The repercussions of one's actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.
- A scholar researches a group of mercurial poetesses of the 1800s, but finds resistance in his field because he is male.
- A new immigrant in New Zealand is drawn into the mystery of a series of unsolved crimes that make a network of fates and fortunes as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
- A group of poets and artists, radical in their time but destined to be great in the estimation of future generations, start a movement providing lanterns to poor families in their city. In the present, a young scholar uncovers one of these lanterns and its connection to the murder of one of the artists, and must track down more to perhaps finally solve the mystery.
- An Indian woman marries a Jewish man—hijinks ensue as the wedding day approaches and their two families attempt to connect with each other and understand a different culture.
- Buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice, as a young woman preparing for an arranged marriage learns what it means to be a Jewish wife.
- Hijinks and hilarity ensue as Chani plans a wedding with a Gentile.
- A young boy befriends an old man in the park who is afflicted with a medical condition that causes his heart to literally spin in his chest. As the boy meets the man there for weekly chess lessons, he learns much about life, hardship, and the power of hope.
- After her husband dies, a woman finds solace in spinning his hairs with her own. But when she runs out of his hair, she wonders if her pastime was chiefly about her love for him, or her interest in textile arts. Could textile manipulation be a new direction for her life?
- In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.
- Mary Miller, a hopeless and despondent mother of 3 living in the suburbs of Anaheim, begins having seizures, claiming to receive visions and messages from God. As the media gets involved and people flock to see her in either pilgrimage or skepticism, her friends and children learn about the nature of belief, faith, and acceptance.
- A retelling of the crucifixion and early Christianity through the eyes of a postmodern Mary Magdalene.
- Living in exile and fear, Mary mother of Jesus tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son's brutal death. She slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.
- Personal stories of four generations of Irish women are woven together to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.
- In the 1930s, a man invents a new mode of transportation—basically a spinning swing ride from a carnival, but it spins fast enough to create its own gravity and propulsion. In order to test it out and get people to take the invention seriously, he enlists a mismatched group of people to help him navigate it across the Atlantic.
- An Irish family’s brief visit to America is derailed by World War, and they must reluctantly make their home in the shadow of the endless carnival of Coney Island.
- Living near a demilitarized zone, a woman is inured to finding undetonated bombs as she walks. But her frustration in her marriage leaves her increasingly mentally unstable.
- A woman visiting Normandy with her family in the 1950s comes across undetonated ordnance left over from WWII. While she ponders what to do with it, secrets from the war accelerate the deterioration of her family life.
- In 1940 Brighton a woman struggles to fall in with the war effort and the constraints of her role in life. Her developing relationship with a German-Jewish prisoner of war will shatter the structures on which her life, her family and her community rest.
- Six young girls live in a shanty, and dream of escaping to America, Dubai or Europe. But if they do escape, will these new lands bring them everything they wish for?
- African emigrants living in London struggle to fit in with their neighbors.
- Two young graffiti artists trying to parlay their skills into the NYC art scene decide to invent more exciting names and pasts for themselves to ease their acceptance into the art world.
Based on these synopses, which books do you see making the shortlist next week? Do you have a guess about the winner yet?
We, naturally, have made uninformed opinions about the shortlist and winner.
Alyssa: We Need New Names, TransAtlantic, The Spinning Heart, The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, The Lowland, A Tale for the Time Being
Winner The Lowland
Susan:A Tale for the Time Being, The Spinning Heart, TransAtlantic, Unexploded, The Lowland, Harvest
A Tale for the Time Being, 2
Almost English, 1
Five Star Billionaire, 2
The Kills, 1
The Lowland, 3
The Luminaries, 2
The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, 2
The Spinning Heart, 3
The Testament of Mary, 3
We Need New Names, 1
For those of you keeping track of our Olympics points, Alyssa won this event with her inventive and elaborate plot descriptions. (Especially compared to Susan's typically short and literal guesses.) From corrupt publishing in her version of Five Star Billionaire to the amazing self-propelled carnival swing in TransAtlantic, it's likely that Alyssa's plot descriptions would be more fun to read than the actual shortlisted books. Combined with her score from event 1, Alyssa is the uncontested winner of the Read This / Eat That Man Booker Prize Olympics! We expect to get cereal endorsement offers any minute now . . .