The Man Booker prize longlist was announced yesterday. It’s a subject I haven’t been shy coming forward about in the past, having previously stated my hatred for the prize and accusing it of ignorance and bigotry. And this years longlist does nothing to raise my opinion of the award. Narrow and elitist are about the politest terms I can find for it.
I’m willing to admit my dislike of the award is not entirely fair. It is, ultimately, an award for the genre of literary fiction. It only considers literary fiction, and draws a narrow definition even within that narrow genre. It does publicise some well written books and talented authors, who are generally lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their books. Given the very small readership for most literary fiction, it’s not surprising that the genre jealously guards an award like The Booker, to the exclusion of all other genres of fiction. But it does call in to question the disproportionate attention paid to the award in the media and elsewhere. It’s a great shame, because The Booker could so easily be a much more valuable award, if it only looked broadly across contemporary fiction to find the most intelligent writing, regardless of genre.
But my argument with The Booker has hit a stumbling point this year. In previous years there were clear books and authors within the SF genre that would deserve a place on The Booker longlist, or even the prize itself. Books that crossed the divide between SF and Lit.Fic, combining the best values of both. Last year China Mieville’s The City and The City was a clear contender. Titles that spring to mind in the last few decades include M John Harrison’s Light, Look to Windward (in my opinion the best of Iain M Banks Culture novels), Neuromancer by William Gibson (qualifying I think as a commonwealth writer), Accelerando by Charlie Stross, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
But this year, I don’t see a stand-out candidate for the prize within the SF genre. Perhaps my reading has missed the really great SF books this year. Or perhaps the current conservatism in publishing has pushed SF that experiments with literary values off the shelves. Where are the SF books that could take this years Booker prize?