Bothered by the Booker

<p><i>Canongate publisher Jamie Byng made his thoughts on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist known <a href=";page&amp;repl... the prize's website</a> yesterday. Following are his comments in full:</i></p>
<p><b>Tuesday, 31st July</b></p>
<p>I think some excellent books are on the longlist. My favourites are the Rushdie and Sebastian Barry and Steve Toltz novels, all of which I think are superb books that deserve wider audiences and I think bits of <i>Netherland</i> are breathtakingly beautiful and that this is a very interesting novel too.</p>
<p>But I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like <i>Child 44</i>, a fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that, over novels as exceptional as Helen Garner's <i>The Spare Room</i> or Ross Raisin's <i>God's Own Country</i>.</p>
<p>I will declare my bias - as the publisher at Canongate I had a vested interest in seeing <i>The Spare Room </i>make the shortlist. But from an objective point of view this novel has been as well-reviewed as any book Canongate has ever published (including <i>Life of Pi</i>, <i>The Crimson Petal and the White</i>, <i>The Secret River</i>, <i>Lanark</i>, <i>The People's Act of Love</i> and <i>Carry Me Down</i>.) As well as the book getting exceptional reviews, I received remarkable and heartfelt responses from a whole array of other novelists about the book pre-publication including Peter Carey (&quot;<i>The Spare Room</i> is a perfect novel&quot;), Hilary Mantel, John Banville, Alberto Manguel, Diana Athill and Michel Faber, any one of whom I would respect as a judge of serious fiction more than all five of these judges put together.</p>
<p>One has to be philosophical about these things and as a publisher particularly so as you come to realise what a lottery these prizes are. Rilke once wrote, &quot;Nothing affects a book as little as words of criticism&quot; and regardless of what a panel decides the book is the book and time will tell which of these books are still being read in ten years time.</p>
<p>I am certain that <i>The Spare Room</i> is a modern classic that will continue to be read and enjoyed and appreciated long after all of us are dead.</p>
<p><b>Wednesday, 30th July</b></p>
<p>I was a little astonished myself to open today's bulletin from <i>The Bookseller</i> and to learn that I had &quot;launched an astonishing attack on the Man Booker Prize judges&quot;. What's astonishing is that my reasonably innocent (and I would say toned down!) comments could be blown out of proportion in this way. I mean for christ's sake. Let's please not get carried away.</p>
<p>As I wrote yesterday I think that there are some excellent books on the longlist. My post was written in the heat of the moment, having just learned that Helen Garner's <i>The Spare Room</i> had not made the longlist of a literary prize that claims to celebrate and champion &quot;fiction at its finest&quot;. And of course my personal interest in this book as its publisher, which I declared up front, only added to my frustration at it being overlooked.</p>
<p>Thankfully this judging panel IS in a minority in not recognising the many qualities of <i>The Spare Room</i> which is unquestionably one of the most highly praised novels of the year.</p>
<p>Our hbk edition of the book has already had to reprint, the novel has been a big bestseller in Helen's native Australia and it has now sold into twenty other territories around the world and to some of the most prestigious literary lists there are.</p>
<p>If I had a regret it was dismissing the judges in quite the way that I did but the trouble is I think the credibility of the panel is completely undermined by its decision to include a book like <i>Child 44</i>. We read this novel when it was on submission and chose not to offer. I thought I was fair in describing it the way that I did. But the idea that this novel could be determined to be a finer piece of fiction than <i>The Spare Room</i> is, I think, ludicrous. And many other people feel this.</p>
<p>The subjectivity of reading is of course enormous and different books do different things to different people. That is part of their elusive, personalised joy. I happen to think that <i>The Spare Room</i> is a great book, a wise and beautifully written gem that has an exceptional vitality and I am certain that it will be read and appreciated long after some of the books on this longlist are forgotten.</p>
<p>Yesterday also reminded me of my complete dismay in 2006 when Kate Grenville's <i>The Secret River</i> didn't make the longlist of 20 titles for that year's Orange Prize. I was gobsmacked and my feelings about that judging panel were similar.</p>
<p>By what yardstick did they judge the novel? <i>But then The Secret River </i>went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize that year and get shortlisted for the Booker and became a great success (fyi - Kate has just delivered an outstanding new novel called <i>The Lieutenant</i> which we will publish next march). You win some, you lose some and you just have to accept this. But I also feel entitled to voice my disgust at a decision.</p>
<p>Two of the judges happen to be friends (or they were!) and I do also appreciate that taking part in these judging panels puts one in an invidious position. It's impossible to make everyone happy. But I think time will tell that this year they simply got it wrong in dismissing <i>The Spare Room</i>.</p>
<p>And please read <i>God's Own Country</i> by Ross Raisin. It's a remarkable debut. And I hope that either the Toltz or the Barry go onto win it. Both are great and by writers who really deserve wider recognition and audiences.</p>