It was the night before the announcement of the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, and it was the first time the shortlisted writers had all come together in the same space. In the Royal Festival Hall, where all six shortlisted writers sat next to each other on stage, the anticipation was palpable amid the celebratory atmosphere. There was a collective feeling of awe among the audience, of passion and sincerity emanating from stage, and a general sense of wonder at the power of words. Three had flown in from America, one was born in Lahore. Two were here to read from their debut novels. Two were from the UK – one English, one Scottish. One was doing her PhD and worked part-time in an independent bookshop. One was a well-known short story writer with his first novel. All the books harboured themes of displacement and loss, whether in time, space, or memory. For the first time, the writers all met each other and stood in the dressing room, discussing their works before going on stage. Any could win the Man Booker this year.
Of course, we now know that George Saunders won the Man Booker 2017 with his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, inspired by the story that Abraham Lincoln had gone to the grave of his favourite son in grief after he died, to somehow interact with his body. Drawing from the idea of the ‘bardo’ in Tibetan Buddhism as the intermediary space between life and death, Saunders’ story is narrated by a chorus of 166 ghosts that Lincoln and his son encounter while there. Its interesting structure and narration was a constant point of discussion regarding the book, and was the result of Saunders’ attempt to give a more omniscient relaying of the story, rather than have either protagonist or the gravedigger narrate the story.
“All of the shortlisted books harboured themes of displacement and loss, in time, space, and memory”
Indeed, throughout the readings and discussion of the evening the idea of ‘genre’ was apparent. One audience member asked during the Q&A: have we exhausted all genres – science fiction, fantasy, historical? If you (the authors) were to create an entirely new genre, what would it be? Fiona Mozley, author of Elmet, jumped in to reply. Of all the shortlisted works, she said, it seems that hers was the “least experimental of form”; however, she saw it as a study in genre. It is a Western with something else, she said – her novel has an archetypal masculine character, but in this case, undercut by his teenage daughter. Characters in her book have “bodies and behaviours that are not quite real”, and hence carry elements of fantasy.
Saunders, in reply to the same question, noted that if one starts out with a mission to create something new, it was not going to happen. Original forms and genres come about when you have something to say, but are frustrated with the limitations of existing forms, he said. The unique form of Lincoln in the Bardo certainly seems to be an answer to the shortcomings of more conventional forms.
“Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet, called her book a Western with something else”
This year’s shortlist is an interesting mix – the novels on the list seem to be pushing the boundaries of fiction, being experimental with form, structure, and themes. Alison Flood of The Guardian analysed all the past winners of the Booker prize and concluded that the average winner was a privately-educated white English man in his late 40s who has written a book of less than 400 pages with a male protagonist, usually his seventh. This year’s shortlist consists of three women, two of whom are debut novelists (one American), a man of Pakistani origin, a book that is a whopping 880 pages (hardcover), and another American short-story-writer-turned-novelist. Both 4321 and Lincoln in the Bardo deal with historical events and real characters from history, while Exit West and Autumn deal with very current issues of migration and belonging. In History of Wolves and Elmet, landscape and setting become important elements and are intricately related to characters and theme.
The authors took turns to read an extract from their book, and then chatted with the host about it, followed by a Q&A session open to the floor. When asked if his book was meant for the theatres, Saunders replied, “definitely”, and that they had already sold the movie rights. With the 166 different voices, the story certainly lends itself well to a dramatic interpretation. In fact, an audiobook is already out, with 166 unique individuals voicing the ghosts, including the likes of Ben Stiller and Julianne Moore, Saunders himself, and – when he ran out of people to ask – he even roped in his family members to voice the characters.
“Ali Smith’s Autumn was an experiment in writing about issues so raw that things are still going on as the book reaches the bookshelf”
On the other hand, when asked about the possibility of a movie from 4321, Auster laughed and said that his novel was “movie-proof”. 4321 follows four alternate lives of the same character, and the host had asked him which of the four lives would be a focus should a movie be made out of it. All four are equally important, Auster replied, and hence it would be impossible to make it into a film of less than three hours. Despite that, he added, it was “a very stripped-down book” – much to the audience’s amusement.
Emily Fridlund, like Saunders, started off as a short story writer and her History of Wolves started out as a short story. The difference between a short story and a novel, she said, was that one “had to stay interested in the character in a novel”. Somehow, the power of the voice in History of Wolves intrigued her, and was so compelling that she could see herself expanding it into a full-length novel. Fridlund had researched ice, fishing, and almost every detail of the Minnesotan landscape that plays into her character’s voice.
Similarly, the family in Fiona Mozley’s Elmet is intimately connected with the Yorkshire landscape they have made their home, and her novel is a response to her generation’s “frustrated relationship with land”. A PhD student who works part-time in an independent bookshop, Mozley felt that her generation can “never be secure in our homes”, because of the fluctuating value of property, especially in cities like London. It is especially hard for young writers and artists to gain security, she felt, and that is going to impoverish this city.
“Mohsin Hadid’s Exit West brings the harsh realities of forced migration into sharp focus”
The running theme of the shortlisted books was using art and storytelling as a response to current and historical issues. Elmet represented the voice of a young generation frustrated with the difficulties of settling down in a land that one can call one’s own, with the security of a physical space to call home so out of reach. On the other hand, Ali Smith’s Autumn was an experiment in writing about issues so raw and current things are still going on as the book reaches the bookshelf. Dubbed the ‘Brexit novel’, Autumn tackles immigration, xenophobia, identity, and the backlash to the increasing movement of people and ideas. Mohsin Hadid’s Exit West brings the harsh realities of forced migration into sharp focus by following individual people caught in the conflict – real people with concerns and relationships that are like our own, but, unlike us, have their values and relationships challenged by their situation.
In times of difficulty, the value of art and literature is often questioned, relegated to the realm of frivolous pursuits with no practical value. This year’s shortlist shows that anger and a desire for change can be channelled into creative works that bring issues into sharper focus and introduce different perspectives on the same situation. Literature is a political tool and a participant in the dialogue of current affairs, but veiled in the beauty of language. These books are a testament to the power of words and the value of imagination.
This event was part of the London Literature Festival at London’s Southbank Centre.