This week the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2012 was announced, the winner to be announced on October 16th.
Of the six authors, I have heard of only one, Hilary Mantel, having read Wolf Hall last year (see #31 in 2011 in The Book Nook).
This also means I have actually read a Man Booker Prize Winner (Wolf Hall won in 2009) although now I look back through the Man Booker archive, I have also read other winners like Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2002), Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992) and have the 1982 winner Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally ready to go on Audrey.
But what does it really all mean? How can a small and select group of people decide what story shall be the best that 2012 has to offer?
I've read 42 this year and Robert Harris' Fatherland (#17) and Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram (#1) stand tall in Gidday's list of cracking reads so far. Neither of these are recent books (Fatherland was written 20 years ago, Shantaram in 2003) nor do they appear anywhere in the Man Booker archives.
Sir Peter Stothard, the chairman of this year's panel of Man Booker Prize judges, contributed a thought-provoking piece in yesterday's The Times which made me stop and think about our relationship with literature.
This year, the judging panel will have read 145 works of fiction (some 2-3 times) in the months leading up to October 16th when the winner is announced. That's 102 more than I have read so far this year.
(Where does one find time for this I wonder? Does judging become a full-time job that you wrap around another lesser for a time full time job?)
Stothard claims that this year's shortlist showcases some of our greatest prose-writers. He also says that he's learnt to speak up for literary criticism, an act in itself which requires work and technique and an ability to argue critically the merits - or otherwise - of a particular book. Which, he says, is not the same as reading for leisure.
He has also embraced 'Kindle love' whilst still advocating both printed books and the opportunities that bookshops and catalogues provide to explore material outside the domain of the publishing houses. He implores novellists to write novels first as opposed to writing novels for big screen adaption. And with his literary journalist hat on, admits a guilty preference for writing, from time to time, about subjects and themes rather than about a book itself.
Great writing liberates us all, he says. Expect to be resisted and keep an open mind.
But consider that it's not a fomulaic argument he poses.
Perhaps great writing is a meeting of story and subtext - the author's story and your own subtext - and the magic that occurs when new worlds are opened up and the story shapes us, even ever so slightly, though its tone and texture and sense of possibility. I felt the rhythmic intensity of Roberts' Indian slums, the calculated humanity in Harris' post war world and the cycle of hope and despair in the tiny boat tossing on the sea in Martel's Life of Pi.
Their story and my subtext: could that be the literary equivalent of a match made in Heaven?
In any case, his article has prompted me to check out the Shortlist for myself - here they are in case you've been inspired too:
Narcoplis by Jeet Thayli
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Umbrella by Will Self
I figure if over 700 books (across five judges) have been read this year to give me this shortlist, the least I can do is give them a whirl!
This post is also part of Post of the Month Club - September 2012