Book Prizes and Baltimore Reading

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Just kidding — I’m sure the winner of the Man Booker prize receives something far less glittery (i.e., literary glory and a cash award roughly equivalent to $62,000)

Do any of you out there “do” book prizes, i.e., follow the various competitions, note the winners, and even sometimes (gasp!) read the nominees?  If so, yesterday was a significant one on your calendar, as the long list for 2019’s Man Booker prize (self-described as “fiction at its finest”) was announced.  As you may know from previous posts of mine, my reading choices tilt mildly toward British authors, mainly because I get so many of my recommendations from The Guardian’s excellent book section.  In line with this slight preference, I tend to follow the nominees for, and the ultimate winner of, the Booker; more so than, say, the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, which are the big literary events in the U.S. or even the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which honors “fiction written by women.  For everyone” (my bad! The  2019 winner was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, now a fresh entry on my TBR list).    The extent of my “involvement” varies by year; a few times I’ve read all thirteen nominees before the prize was awarded in October; I usually read at least the short list of six finalists (announced in September); in a really bad year I may read just two or three of the nominated books.

Following the Booker process has become one of my beloved summer rituals, from the July announcement of the long list (all thirteen nominees), to September’s short list of six, to October’s big enchilada, when the winner is announced.  It’s a fun little activity that ties in nicely with my love of lists and reading projects, as well as a very pleasant way of staying somewhat current with contemporary literary fiction, particularly that of non-U.S. writers (by reading the Booker nominees I’ve discovered some great writers I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered).  Do you have any literary contests or rituals to which you are similarly attached?  Or do you just generally ignore the whole literary contest thing, feeling that artistic competition is inappropriate or that the nominated books generally don’t interest you very much?

As much as I’ve enjoyed my pleasant little summer ritual, however, in the last year or so it has taken a back seat to other activities.  Dominating everything else for the past two years has been my course work for an undergraduate degree in art history (I refer to it alternatively as my “vanity” degree or “my second childhood folly” as I have no sane reason for being an undergraduate at this point in my life); this has required, oh, ever so much non-fiction reading which has soaked up my spare time like a sponge.  In addition to this limitation, my reading choices this past year have returned somewhat to the classics, leaving me a bit less interested in contemporary writers.  Last year I read only three of the nominated books (in addition to getting about half-way through two others) and never quite got around to reading the actual winner (Anna Burns’ The Milkman).  This year —- gasp! — I even forgot that yesterday was the big day for announcing the long list (in some years, I’ve been online at the big moment because I want to see the list as quickly as possible, get a jump on obtaining copies of the more obscure works and draw up my rough reading schedule.  Janakay, dear readers, can be obsessive about her hobbies!)

Before I roll out the list, do keep two things in mind if you’re not familiar with the Booker rules (if you’re British and/or know the rules, please forgive me if I get something wrong).  For much of its history,  the competition was open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries (plus South Africa and Zimbabwe); a rules change in 2014, however, opened the contest to writers from the U.S. (this change has been quite controversial in the British literary world).  Additionally, a book may be eligible for consideration provided that it is published by September 30 of the relevant year; the judges have read all the novels included in the July long list because they get advance copies, but ordinary folk have to wait  (also, if you don’t live in the U.K. you may have to wait for your country’s publication date unless you’re willing to do an international order).  This can at times be very frustrating if you’re obsessive about completeness (believe me, I know).   Keeping this in mind, along with an imaginary drum roll, here’s the long list:

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Margaret Atwood:  The Testaments (the eagerly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; set 15 years afterwards and follows the lives of three women of Gilead.  It will be “out” on September 10.  Remember what I said about the judges’ advance copies?)

Salman Rushdie:  Quichotte (inspired by Don Quixote; a tale of an aging salesman who falls in love with a TV star and travels across America to win her hand; U.K. publication in August; remember! Judges get advance copies)

Elif Shafak:  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (dark tale of sexual violence set in Istanbul; told through eyes of dying prostitue; in “real life” the author herself is currently under attack by the Turkish goverment)

John Lanchester:  The Wall (a dystopian novel set on an unnamed island isolated from the rest of the world by a concrete barrier; the New York Times liked it and thought few readers would “stop until they reach the final page”)

Valeria Luiselli:  Lost Children Archive (a re-telling of the American road novel; compares a family journey south from New York to a journey north undertaken by child migrants)

Oyinkan Braithwaite:  My Sister, the Serial Killer (about two siblings in Lagos, one a nurse and the other with an unusual way of dealing with her boyfriends; described by the NYT as a “bombshell of a book” dealing with sibling bonds and female survival)

Lucy Ellmann:  Ducks, Newburyport (tale of an angst-ridden Ohio homemaker; described by The Guardian as “Anne Tyler meets Gertrude Stein”)

Kevin Barry:  Night Boat to Tangier (two aging Irish gangsters exchange banter as they keep vigil at the Algeciras ferry terminal in Spain; The Guardian loved it).

Deborah Levy:  The Man Who Saw Everything (U.K. publication is in August; remember! Booker judges get advance copies).

Bernardine Evaristo:  Girl, Woman, Other (a verse novel raising questions of race and gender through interconnected stories of a group of British women of color)

Chigozie Obioma: An Orchestra of Minorities (based partly on a true story and partly on Homer’s Odyssey; it’s set in modern Nigeria & uses a love story to examine issues of class, male rage and static social mobility )

Max Porter:  Lanny (described as a “rich, twisted, gloriously cacophonous novel of village life;” plot involves a missing five year old and a sinister character rooted in English folklore)

Jeanette Winterson:  Frankisstein (described by The Guardian as a “playful reanimation” of Mary Shelley’s classic)

Do you have any thoughts on the books and writers up for the prize?  If so, please share! Although I’m somewhat familiar with a few of the writers (I’ve read previous novels by Lanchester, Levy, Barry, Rushdie & Obioma), this is the first time in many years that I haven’t read a single one of the nominated works.  I love Atwood (and anything associated with her) but despite this I hadn’t included even Testaments on my own little list of books I’d like to read in 2019 (check it out if you’re interested!  The only criterion for inclusion was — I just wanted to read it! If you really, really enjoy lists you may want to check a Goodreads list of the books that readers thought merited the award or nominate your own favorite novel for The Guardian’s 2019 “Not The Booker Award” (grand prize is a coffee mug rather than $62,000)).  Quite honestly, I was a bit unenthused about this year’s long list, but perhaps that’s due to its including so many novels dealing with current world crises, as I’m in a bit of an escape mode right now (also, I have some distressing and potentially tragic academic deadlines to meet in the next couple of months, so can’t get too engrossed with new novels!).  Do you feel differently right now about socially relevant books or do you think that now more than ever it’s critical for fiction and literation to focus on social, environmental and economic issues?

Because I do tend to natter on, as certain characters in my beloved old novels say, I’ll keep the Baltimore portion of my post brief.  The Guardian has a wonderful reoccurring feature (honestly, I don’t work for The Guardian, I just read its book section on a daily basis) called “The Top Ten Books” about a variety of topics (past lists have ranged from “top ten queer rural books,” to works about Burma, the river Thames, cults and houseguests.  Utterly addictive!)  This week’s “Top Ten” is about Baltimore, a wonderful old east coast (U.S.) city that has a rich history, great art and fabulous writers.  I’m very fond of Baltimore, which I visit pretty frequently and feel somewhat protective about, as I don’t think many people realize how much the city has to offer.  Laura Lipman, one of the best thriller writers around, has strong ties to Baltimore and compiled this week’s list, which includes works by Frederick Douglass (an enslaved child in rural Maryland, he learned to read and write only after he was sent to Baltimore); Ta-Nehisi Coates (who grew up there);  Madison Smart Bell (a Baltimore resident who formerly ran the creative writing program at a local college); film maker John Waters (another Baltimore resident); and Anne Tyler (whose Accidental Tourist is a “classic Baltimore novel”).  And, of course, you can read Lipman herself, who gives many of her superb novels a Baltimore setting.

13 thoughts on “Book Prizes and Baltimore Reading

  1. I must confess I don’t really follow the book prizes any more, as I found I rarely agreed with the judges or had a really interest in many of the books. In fact, the last time I got really worked up was when Atwood won for Blind Assassin, which was so exciting! And I think Julian Barnes definitely was the right choice for Sense of an Ending. Although I admit I was very happy with the fact that Flights won the Man Booker International – tbh I probably have more interest in translated prizes nowadays. I do think it’s a bit annoying that judges get advance copies though – I was really surprised to see The Testaments in there!

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  2. I wonder if I’m not arriving at the same point as you, i.e., growing a bit tired of the book prize competitions. I was incredibly enthused for a number of years about the Booker prize — it was an easy way to become acquainted with a mangeable “universe” of exotic (for an American of the U.S. variety, at any rate) Commonwealth, British and Irish writers who weren’t always huge “names” in the U.S. (or they may have been and I just didn’t know about them!). Reading the list (or as much of it as I could manage) got me emotionally invested in the outcome; I would have been quite indignant, for example, if Wolf Hall or A Brief History of Seven Killings hadn’t won in their respective years. (And yeah, Margaret Atwood! Blind Assassin converted me from a fan to a cult follower! Atwood rocks!) I’m a big skimmer and reader of reviews; without the compulsion of getting through a ready-made list I probably wouldn’t have actually read some really great stuff (of course, the time investment didn’t always pay off; I do remember my reaction to several nominated works over the years was “is this a joke?”). In the last few years, however, particularly last year and this, my interest seems to be waning. I was pretty half-hearted about it last year — didn’t make a serious attempt to read enough of the list to have any opinion about the outcome. And this year — well, as I said in my post, I’m not terribly enthused. Like you, I was surprised to see Testaments on the list (as much as I love Atwood, I personally didn’t think The Handmaid’s Tale needed a follow-up but I may “re-evaluate” this opinion); I’m a bit curious about Max Porter’s Lanny and I may take a half-hearted shot at Deborah Levy’s and Kevin Barry’s novels if I have time. I think the whole Booker process is losing its luster for me; the nominees seem less interesting, I’m not sure including U.S. writers really added anything except controversy and I feel less need to use the long list as a type of quick “guide” to what’s happening in literary fiction. Maybe it’s time to look at the Man Booker International award ?????

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  3. I don’t really follow book prizes but I do follow vloggers, bloggers and podcasters who do. And the more I read of current fiction, the more likely it is that I have already read a book or two on the longlists and sometimes even the short lists. I was surprised to find I had read four of the 2019 Woman’s Prize Short list, though like you, I have yet to read the winner!

    So yes, I did check out the Booker Longlist when it was announced. I don’t feel that artistic competition is inappropriate, though I do think it can be taken a little too seriously. I am still disappointed at the inclusion of U.S. authors on the Booker’s roll (what did I just say about taking this too seriously :D). What I used to like best about the Booker was the exposure to Commonwealth authors. Now, it feels like those titles get pushed out and we get Paul Auster and George Saunder’s latest books instead, which frankly don’t really need the publicity. I loved The Underground Railroad but it had already won the NBA and the Pulitzer; it annoyed me it was also on the Booker list too.

    I’ve already read My Sister the Serial Killer and Lost Children Archive. I thought both were pretty good, though I was unable to get the subtext from the Braithwaite novel that other people are pulling out of it.

    I’m a little unenthused about this year’s list as well. I think mostly because there are only two authors I’ve not heard of – Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evariso. But I think that might because I am so much more invested in the world of books than I used to be that I am familiar with writers and novels I’ve not read.

    I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read back in the 1980s and am also a fan of Atwood. But I too am strangely uninterested in this follow up. Like you, I don’t see the need. In any case, I will wait until the short list is announced and see if any of the books appeal to me more. If I had to choose now, I would pick the Elif Shafak because I’ve never read her before and want to try one of her books. I would not read Lanny, even if it won. I read Grief is a Thing With Feathers by Porter and didn’t get on with his writing style personally and it sounds like Lanny is more of the same.

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    1. Ruthiella: so nice of you to stop by — I very much enjoyed reading your remarks on the book prize business. They made me think a bit more about the value (or lack thereof) of artistic competitions. You’re right, of course, that readers (myself very much included) may take them too seriously. I glommed on to the Booker Prize when I was in the process of attempting to become a more serious reader (I’ve ALWAYS read, but as the time to do so became scarcer I decided to read “real” books and not junk. Oh dear — that DOES make me sound priggish, doesn’t it? Let me add that I also needed to keep up with the lunch conversation of some highly literate friends!) I think I regarded book prizes (particularly the Man Booker, as I was reading so many U.K. writers) as some type of automatic guarantee of quality; if it won, it HAD to be good. The danger of this attitude, of course, was in regarding the shortlisted books as “not quite as good.” Reading the list and comparing novels that were shortlisted against those that weren’t (not to mention winner vs. losers) really emphasized the ridiculousness of this view (I’ve really disagreed with the judges on several occasions!) Book competitions do have value, I think, but primarily as a way for publishers to promote authors and books in an age when the printed word faces stiff competition for attention (and, yeah, I know, publishers are primarily promoting sales BUT prize nominations ensure that the some worthwhile books might actually get read instead of disappearing into the void).
      Regarding the Booker’s inclusion of U.S. authors: I was actually a little excited when the rules were changed in this respect (after all, the prize does promote itself as the premier literary award in “the English speaking world” so how could it justify excluding a big chunk of it? I can be pretty literal at times) but in retrospect, at least from my perspective, I don’t think it’s worked out well. I agree the big U.S. names on the list seem to have pushed out some of the more interesting selections. As you point out, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad had already won every prize going and didn’t need additional exposure. But just to play devil’s advocate (I used to argue for a living & old habits die hard): might nominating U.S. works actually increase exposure to a British audience that would otherwise ignore them, i.e., some diligent U.K. readers who don’t follow the U.S. literary world but do follow the Booker? Also, at the risk of shaming myself, there were several U.S. nominees I probably WOULDN’T have read myself had I not been doing my “complete the list thing” (Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World & Richard Power’s Orfeo come to mind; not to mention Lincoln in the Bardo).
      Regarding Underground Railroad — I, too, loved it. Judging from the reviews, Nickel Boys sounds equally strong, but I’ll have to wait until I can handle the brutality. Thanks, by the way, for mentioning Grief is a Thing with Feathers. I’ve looked at it a couple of times but decided to pass; being reminded that Porter wrote it descreases my desire to read Lanny, his latest! And, yes, the Shafuk looks interesting, but I’m in a fragile mood these days (and — time is also scarce) so I may not get around to it.

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  4. Add me to the list of those who don’t follow the awards lists. In my case it’s ignorance.

    Thanks for educating me on the topic. You, Janakay, and Kagsby and Ruthiella at the comments.

    I can see the decay in quality you three speak about. I went to Google the reader, and my heart sank reading the plot. So tripe. I am of the opinion that no, I don’t think social issues or crisis should be the main drive in literature, but by the long list, it looks like that was a heavy factor.

    I am most drawn to these, The Wall, the one about the Irish and Algeciras, Quichotte,-obviously-, the Levy Book, -I may be missing some-. I will definitely wait for some of your reviews, and see if I eventually find any or buy any of those.

    Still we may say many great books were responses to the time events, right? I am optimistic though, and if the bias of the time does not appeal to me, at least it may help us in the long run to sort some jewels.

    Something about including the USA I agree wasn’t a great move. It may have been an attempt to catch some of our non main stream writers, I don’t know.

    I am a bit more interested in contemporary titles now than before, -but I am talking about the second half of the 20th century, hahaha-, and I don’t read a lot of quantity, and it’s mostly classics.

    But I recognize the thrill of following competitions. I use to obsess over many sports ones such as tennis tournaments, soccer, I still am a ridiculous follower of The Great British Bake Off. I watch it as a sociological phenomenon as much or more as a cook show (I don’t bake a lot.)

    On your undergrad, hey, that ‘vanity’ degree as you call it, makes lots of sense. Some are doing what you are. More don’t do it because it’s not always possible to devote oneself to knowledge for its own sake, and it’s a way to stay young and to keep your mind active. It’s healthy for the mind and soul. But what would I know? I would love to do that one day.

    And I am intrigued and interested by that special by the Guardian and the Baltimore books and history. I have added Baltimore to my wish bucket of places to visit. I have Douglass book, I must start there, don’t you think?

    This was such an exciting post. It’s left me with some interesting titles and I have learned something new.

    I will keep an eye to your blogs and any reviews of books that had been nominated or awarded this or any other prices.

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  5. I knew I forgot something. I am very interested in reading Accidental Tourist! I have some ideas, and I add them to my lists! The joy of lists, 🙂

    I like your “manageable ‘universe’ of exotic”, hahaha. To me, an immigrant, I chase your educated and solidly rooted U.S American quality, Janakay. And I love Ruthiella’s extensive knowledge of classics and contemporary, and Kagsby’s britishmess and love for translation… I want it all, and yet I am learning to be happy and content with the little I can afford.

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      1. Hi Silvia! as always, a pleasure to read your comments. Between you and Ruthiella I’ve spent a most pleasant Saturday morning! I had just finished my reply, when WordPress (or me) did something weird and wiped it out, so I’ll try again.
        I think your observation that this year’s Booker list was heavy on current issues is right on the mark (The Wall, The Lost Children’s Archive to name only two); this leads to an interesting reflection on just how much a good writer must be involved in contemporary issues. As you point out, many great books engage with their times. I’d have to think about it a bit (well, a lot) but I think one could argue that every good writer does this (even if s/he’s trying to ignore current events) and that the great ones combine this contemporary engagement with some basic human truth that transcends contemporaneity — that this is what makes a classic.
        The Guardian’s “Top Ten” books feature is really fun; since there’s no paywall you can spend lots of time looking at old ones. Do you ever look at the New York Times Book Section? It, too, has a fun feature called “By the Book” in which a writer/artist/public figure shares his/her views on literature, contemporary writers, current novels s/he’s reading and so on. The current one (and one of the more interesting) features Javier Marías. Among other things, he doesn’t believe in a distinct “Spanish literature” and thinks that the language in which one writes is of secondary importance. With your great background in Spanish lit and your bilingualism, you’d be a much better judge than of I of his views! You also might be interested to learn that Marías doesn’t often read his contemporaries and thinks he’s wasted a lot of time over the years trying to stay “updated.” This leads me to:
        reading classics vs reading contemporaries: ideally one should do both? (question mark since this is debatable!). I think for me it comes in stages; I’ve gone almost exclusively from non-fiction to classics to mostly contemporary works. No matter the stage, I’ve never been very fond of memoirs. One of the joys of reading, however, is seeing how your taste changes and is influenced by what you’ve read previously; for example, I’ve actually read two memoirs this year I’ve really enjoyed so who knows? This genre may be my next focus!
        Regarding Anne Tyler: I love her work. She’s very prolific so there’s lots of it; what I’ve read primarily dates from the earlier-mid period of her long career. Accidental Tourist is great but my own favorite is The Homesick Restaurant — such an understanding of family bonds, particularly sibling attachments; she shows how they endure while she never ignores the dark side of them.
        Side note: you may be interested in “The Art of Empire: The Golden Age of Spain,” an art exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art. There’s not a huge amount of information on the website, but it does have some nice images. You’ve probably seen more of the Spanish painters in Madrid’s museum, but the focus here is on artistic interaction between Spain and the indigenous artists and art of the New World. The catalogue is very nice.

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  6. Janakay, whenever I lose a comment, it’s usually a long one, and it makes me mad. Thank you for persisting and typing this again.

    Strangely enough, I’ve been thinking about that of ‘what should the authors write’, and I arrive to what you said very well. To me, a worthy writer is such no matter what route he or she takes. When writers tap on that human truth that transcends, they can’t be ‘too current issues’, or ‘too escapist’. Funny that The Sirens of Titan, for example, being fiction, is obviously loaded with sharp criticism of the war, but that’s not it, it’s perfectly amusing in parts, and it deals with big topics such as destiny, determinism, freedom. Good literature is pregnant with possibilities and layers. Rabbit thread: I was looking at those many actors that impersonated real people in biopic movies, I think they call them, and one about Bob Dylan was impersonated in part by a woman actor, and that made me watch a clip. It was exactly a recreated interview in which apparently they are ‘accusing’ him of making music that departed from his usual ‘social protest’ songs. Dylan scratches his head trying to make them see that he, as a human and a concerned one, will always be such. I also thought that when there’s a surplus of the same old plots, in different places, by different voices, that may not be memorable literature, but it may be something to be happy about, that certain groups get their share of the market. Many readers, and us all, may find interesting and good titles. But again, maybe non fiction is also best for this. Last year I read several non fiction that read as fiction in terms of quality. They kept me glued to the book, and weren’t dry, which was my biased expectation of most or all non fiction.

    And I’m thinking about all this now, while I’m listening to ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. If he had set to write a book to teach us lessons, or show us what the Apartheid was all about, it’d have failed. He had a ‘story’ to tell, and a cry for love, and we may all agree that the book is a response to the Apartheid.

    I have not read the NY Times section either. But trust me, I’d start. I love what you share about Marías. I only read one book, “Corazón tan blanco”, and I’m glad I read it, although it did not wow me. But his talk on literature is very interesting, and I always remember Calvino, or C.S. Lewis, -or both-, who said that for each contemporary book, one must read 5 or more classics! LOL. There’s no truly any rule, of course, and as you say, I’ve also experienced a shift in my interests. This is the year I came back to mystery and dystopia, and I’m also reading more contemporary. But my contemporary is XX century, ha ha ha. I agree with the sentiment that is a waste to try to be ‘updated’. The idea that our previous reads influence where we go next also resonates with me.

    Taking note of that other Anne Tyler’s title. I do appreciate your art suggestion tremendously. I always LOVE reading about art, and, of course, visiting museums. The focus of that art exhibit sounds lovely. My goal is to visit a museum or two before school/work starts, which is coming very soon.

    Back on the genre thing, I challenge myself and force myself without pain, 🙂 to vary my genres, because I may tend to forget how much I love a good -insert any genre- book, and I can get stagnated easily.

    Last, I am in the middle of a new post, and YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS, right after you mentioned how much you liked ‘The Blind Assassin’, I checked it from the library for my kindle. I realized after a few pages, that I want to read it, but since it’s a longish one, I wanted to own it. (I dismally remembered having passed on a pristine copy at the used book store, sigh). I went quickly, and I found ANOTHER ONE, almost new, but used price. And an ESV Bible translation that I was after, like NEW, for used price too.

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  7. I read that interview with Marias and LOVED it! I agree with him that contemporary writers from all over the world seem to have more affinities than grouping them by language.

    Agree on the memoir biography thing, that’s why I stick to the ones of literary quality and historical relevance.

    I now need to check a few titles he raved about. It was so refreshing to see him openly not be sweept by Ullyses but recommend Dubliners. And to give or attempt to assign loosely an age to some books it’s on the spot! Any younger and less “experienced” and I would have loathed The Ambassadors.

    I do want to give another of his titles a chance.

    I subscribed to the NYT. Thanks so much for the recommendation. Off to check The Guardian, and past numbers of By the Book.

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  8. Silvia: I had to laugh! I’m so glad my hunch was right, i.e., that you’d like the Marías interview. Sometimes these pieces aren’t so interesting, usually when it’s a public figure. My only criticism of The Guardian’s Top Ten is that it can include too much (from my perspective) non-fiction, but that’s a small complaint! Good reading!

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