Along with the Nobel and perhaps the Pulitzer, the Man Booker Prize for fiction is one of the most renowned, richest and celebrated book awards. The book prize with ‘book’ in its name began in 1969 and soon became ‘the’ prize for any fiction writer just as long as the book was written in English and published in Britain. Originally it was only open to members of the Commonwealth but that Victorian-like rule was duly dropped. It is also so much more showbiz than other book awards. Like the Oscars, punters are known to place a bet, and like the Oscars, fans of the nominees suspect the judges of setting their own agenda. Perhaps you notice a pattern? Why is it never the dangerous, experimental book? Why does it always go to the easiest of compromises? And of course, why haven’t they asked me to join the panel? In the early days of the Booker it was mostly men with elderly, kind faces being nominated for their dry, difficult and philosophical works. Now we have a variety of genres, and there is much more diversity. However, there is still a problem: they still haven’t asked you or I who should win.
Below are five excellent examples of books that were nominated for but for some reason never won. In my opinion these titles were unfairly robbed of the prize. If you do not agree with me please remember that you are, almost certainly, entirely wrong.
Magnus Mills The Restraint Of Beasts –1998
This book is about two Scottish men and their unnamed supervisor travelling around the country repairing fences. Admittedly that does not sound gripping but it is in its very ordinariness that its extraordinariness can be found. The sentences are short and to the point, it’s descriptions simple and its humour is as dry as the Moon. Mills use of language is like a magic trick. Pick up a copy and read any page at random and you get pulled in – You have to know what happens next! So here we have a philosophical, ponderous novel disguised as a slow farce. Mills’ influences appear to be Pinter, Levi and a sprinkling of Alan Bennett but this book is unique. Unfortunately for Mills, in 1998 the winner of the Booker Prize was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, an extremely well written book but one that screams “Booker Prize winner” before you’ve even seen the other nominees, whereas Mills, with his glasses and his day jobs, felt like one of us. Mills is an influence to the amateur. Just start typing. See what happens.
The Accidental by Ali Smith – 2005
How this failed to win the Booker, or the Orange Prize, or the James Tait Black Memorial Prize is baffling. Ali Smith is one of the greatest British novelists currently breathing, however, in 2005 her fellow nominees had all written books that were frightening in their ok-ness (the prize that year going to John Banville’s The Sea). Ali Smith doesn’t let the reader skive off games, she plays with the novel’s form causing you to think, and these experiments usually work. Every time you start to read one of her books it’s like taking a cold shower to wake you up. The story is about a family in Norfolk trying to have a holiday without admitting they are bored of Norfolk and each and of other, when suddenly a stranger called Amber appears… It’s Smith’s fascination with us that make her books stand out. Here the best-realised character is the daughter Astrid. Having never been a 12 year-old girl I am perhaps not the best person to judge, but the empathy Smith shows is staggering. Showing empathy for your fellow humans is slowly becoming a hate crime (or a like crime) so we must do what we can to fight this. Baby steps, but you can start by reading The Accidental by Ali Smith.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – 2011
Two men, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are sent on a mission to assassinate gold prospector Herman Kermit Warm in this engrossing sort-of historical novel. Sort-of because it’s set in the nineteenth century but deWitt’s prose proves that you don’t have to know everything, you just need to know enough. The Sisters Brothers clearly relies on the reader having seen at least one western, even Westworld, to relate to our heroes’ journey. The humour comes from this familiarity. Like Westworld, everything appears to be fine but something’s hidden; horses, guns and cowboys are all here but deWitt keeps his distance making the whole book feel off-centre but compulsive. The reason this did not win the Man Booker 2011 was probably because the judges rarely have any patience for the quirky one. There’s always the ‘look, we have a sense of humour’ entry. The winner that year was Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending, which, despite it being a good if not great novel, is a horribly reassuring choice.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark – 1970
Nominated in the so-called Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970, The Driver’s Seat may only be a novella but its punch is stronger than most novels. Muriel Spark will always be best known for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, a lovely film of the book was made starring the lovely Maggie Smith, she won a lovely Oscar for the role which was lovely, so it may surprise you to learn how dark, fiercely intelligent and modern a writer Muriel Spark could be. It tells the story of a spinster called Lise who travels abroad to meet someone, to say more would be a spoiler: that is true of most stories but especially here as Spark writes in a curious future tense and, like to village gossip assures us that we’ll hear all about Lise’s fate soon enough in the news. Its failure to win the Man Booker is irritating considering how good it is. It’s slowly becoming a story everyone is aware of but possibly haven’t read; with each decade The Driver’s Seat gets closer and closer to becoming a novella we all mean to read but never get round to. In time it will be Britain’s answer to The Nose by Gogol or Camus’s The Stranger.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – 1986
The outrage I feel about this novel not winning the 1986 Booker is two fold: Firstly, it’s a very very good book, easy to read but at the same time angry and intellectual. And secondly, scepticism which comes from my paranoia as a genre fiction fan: Did it lose because it’s basically science fiction?
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future USA in which women have no rights and are either farmed for their wombs or forced to be concubines. Perhaps the feminist message seems too obvious but is too important to be ignored: “Oh, women are slaves? Whatevs, bitch.” But it needs to be said and needs repeating. All men should read it or at least it should be taught in school. A speculative novel (the science fiction it’s okay to like) is a clever move by Atwood; this is a genre that appeals to the young. Many of us read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World and this book deserves to be on the same shelf. In 1986 Kingsley Amis won the Man Booker Prize for his novel of self-indulgence, Old Devils, which admittedly is well written but did reek somewhat of better-give-him-an-award-before-he-dies-it’s-Kingsley-Amis-for-God’s-sake. The other titles nominated that year are rarely mentioned in bookshops today, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale has never been out of print.
The 2016 Man Booker Prize is announced on Tuesday 25th October. You can find more about this year’s shortlisted titles here