The Culture Show’s mock award ceremony in the Scottish village of Comrie concluded with a comment that they had probably scuppered Stephan Kelman’s chances of winning. For the residents of Comrie have a track record of picking, not the winner of the prestigious Man Booker award, but the novel that goes on to capture the hearts and minds of the reading public. I hope this to be true of Pigeon English.
Some consider that this year’s panel have favoured ‘readability’ above quality. In the face of accusations of dumbing down, Chair Dame Stella Rimmington insisted, “Being a Man Booker judge forces you to think about best.” I was slightly bemused by the inclusion of Snowdrops in the shortlist, whose hype on the cover promised so much. For me, the premise of the narrator making a confession to his bride-to-be didn’t feel authentic. No matter how frank he might claim his intent, would a man really go into a full description of sex in a sauna? “I think you can take it,” didn’t seem to excuse this: pure relationship suicide.
And so it was Julian Barnes, shortlisted four times and the bookies’ favourite, who stood on the podium to make his acceptance speech. The only author in the shortlist that the villagers had previously heard of, The Sense of An Ending was described by one participant as a thing of beauty, its black edged pages giving it the appearance of a bible (indeed, Julian Barnes singled out Suzanne Dean, the best book designer in town, for special praise, saying that “If the physical book is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”). The content, unfortunately, wasn’t rated so highly by this particular reviewer, who accused Barnes of bailing out on the emotion at what should have been a climatic ending. I didn’t see the televised event until today – it was way past my bedtime – and so I had to be content with reading about Dame Stella’s comparison of the publishing world with the KGB, thanks to its use of “black propaganda, destabilisation operations, plots and double agents.” Cut to Howard Jacobson which The Guardian described as ‘the best TV since The Bee Gees walked out on Clive James.’ I can’t say that I shared the journalist’s insistence that Dame Stella derided the process, in fact I wonder if we watched the same footage. I heard only derision at the critics.
On his winning novel, Julian Barnes said it is, “certainly the best (book) I’ve published in the past twelve months.” He concluded, “I think that if you’re looking at the Booker prize and trying to guess who might be the winner, you should look at the judges rather than the books.”