And so the days are filled...

29 February 2008

On the booker - another rant

Maybe this happens to you - I resist blogging until I feel I have something to say. A post bubbles around in my head for a while until I decide it really needs to be said. There is no timetable to the process, or even any clear rationale. Lately I've been meaning to close off my 2007 Booker Prize discussions with a review (or rather non-review) of the final title on the shortlist - Darkmans by Nicola Barker. But I didn't really feel the need to write about it until those crazy Booker people went and did something irritating again... (at least they are reliable in their behaviour)

Fifteen years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, the Booker mob announced that they would have a 'Booker of Bookers' prize in order to honour the so-called best Booker prize winning book since the beginning of the prize in 1969. A panel of judges selected Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (which won in 1981).

Now, call me a cretin, but I just cannot stand Salman Rushdie's books. I know there are stacks of people out there who do love him and I am not making any kind of comment about those people, their literary taste, or their intelligence. All I am saying is that for me, Rushdie just doesn't cut it. I have read Midnight's Children and cannot think of many experiences which were more excrutiating. I have even read others of his books in a vain attempt to discover what it is that make people rave about his writing so much - all to no avail. Life is short, so I'm cutting Rusdie off the life reading list. There are plenty of fish in the sea and I don't need to torture myself trying to fathom Rushdie.

Now, fast forward a mere fifteen years and the Booker mob have come up with (for the 2nd) time - a startling idea! A 'Best of the Booker'! Quelle surprise! How novel! This is in aid of their 40th anniversary. Again, all previous winners of the Booker Prize are eligible to win. (I am not sure whether there is actually a prize, other than the acclaim and publicity.) Again, most of the pundits are saying that Rushdie's Midnight's Children should win. (Though, hearteningly, Life of Pi is the bookies' favourite at 4:1.)

What does this mean exactly? That in the past 15 years there are no books which have won the Booker which can hold a candle to Midnight's Children? Wouldn't the judges and their idiotic choices (for many of those 15 years) be somewhat accountable for this dire situation? When will contemporary literature be able to move on from this supposed high water mark of Midnight's Children? I suppose I just want to scream from the rooftops: Get over it people! Go and read one of Rohinton Mistry's three shortlisted books! (one of which at least should by all rights have won - in 1996)

But leaving aside personal preference for a moment - the real innovation that the Booker mob have thought up this time is not to have a panel of judges to determine the winner of the 'Best of the Booker' prize - rather, this time it's open to public vote. That's right, public vote. The Booker people have finally caved in to all the complaints that their judging panels are out of touch with the world's readers (as demonstrated by their pitiful choices in past years), and have put the Best of Booker up to the person who can click for their favourite the most number of times. (Though a panel of judges will select a shortlist of 6 books for punters to vote on. And I wonder if the judges will be reading all 41 of the previous years' winners before choosing that shortlist...)

As much as I disagree with the judging panels from year to year, I hate to see the Best of the Booker determined by popular vote. The whole point of the Booker Prize, love it or loathe it, is that it is not decided by popular choice. If it is now opened to popular vote for this once-off prize, why not let us vote for a People's Choice award each year?

All in all, the Best of the Booker prize seems to me to be a pathetic grab for media attention in the dark half of the year when the Booker is inconveniently out of the limelight. Last year's prize has been decided and the furore has died down... it's too early to pick this year's shortlist and even the longlist announcement is months away. So in a desperate bid to get some headlines, the Booker people think 15 years is enough time to have elapsed between the 'best of' prize and launch it again. I for one will not be voting.

Of course I will keep pursuing my life goal of reading all the Booker Prize winning books and maybe the short and longlists too. Here is a handy little reference sheet for those of you have have similar inclinations.

Now, about Darkmans. This is the last book from the 2007 shortlist which I have still not read - however, I have a review of sorts for you. My father has been visiting lately. He is semi-retired and has been on holidays in Australia for a couple of months. So he can very easily be identifed as Someone With A Lot Of Spare Time. So I gave him a copy of Darkmans. I figured he could read it first and if he liked it, then I would finish it. (I got about 100 pages in last year before having to put it down because I was disliking it so much.)

In summary, my father's reactions in the course of reading amounted to a great deal of eyeball rolling, snorting, and exasperated sighing. As he was getting close to finishing the book, I asked him occasionally to read out a passage to me. The selections nearly always seemed inane - an episode where a bird shat on a fellow's head, that sort of thing. I was looking at this 800+ page book thinking perhaps the bird poo could have been edited out, if it didn't contribute to the story. That's the thing. I now have it on reliable advice, from someone who has actually read and finished the book - IT IS NOT ACTUALLY ABOUT ANYTHING.

Sure, there are plenty of highbrow reviewers out there who will tell you it's about this that or the other thing. But in actual fact, nothing happens. There are a bunch of characters. New characters get introduced a few dozen pages from the end. There is no resolution, nor is there anything to be resolved. It is just a big fat book about nothing.

Suffice to say, I will not be reading it. I will be marching straight down to the 2nd hand book shop with my copy of Darkmans and freeing myself from the burden of even looking at it on the bookshelf. I have considered just putting it in the recycling bin so I do not inadvertently cause someone else to waste the precious hours in their life by reading it. But somehow that seems a bit harsh.

So there we have it. 2007 Booker Prize consideration closed. Reading for 2008 will commence shortly. Peter Carey has a new book out, called His Illegal Self. As I read somewhere, Peter Carey + New Book = Booker Prize, so we shall see. (His last book was shortlisted but did not win, though I thought it would have made a credible winner.) Other possibles include Tim Winton's soon-to-be released Breath, and another favourite of mine, Murray Bail, is due to come out with a new book early this year. Geraldine Brooks, a previous shortlister, has a new book out which has received mixed reviews. I am not a huge fan of Brooks, so I think I will wait and see if her latest is shortlisted before reading it.

In the meantime, I admit I have not knit a stitch since mid-January. There are myriad reasons for this, chief among them that I just don't feel like it. I'll be sure to get back to you when I have something more to say. Until then, possums...