prizes and awards

What Can We Learn from the Man Booker Prize Shortlist?

Being shortlisted for such an eminent prize as the Man Booker makes its authors leaders in their field – in some people’s eyes! – so we can all learn from them, can’t we? Helpfully, Saturday’s Guardian gave each of them space to talk about the inspiration for each of their novels. What they wrote were actually pieces about motivation.


Two of the novels are about journeys. When it came to making a book, Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, chose not to simply record the journey she made, but (as I interpret her words) to explore the inner life of the traveller – before, during and after the journey. Music helped her tease out responses that were not just physical reactions to travel. She wrote, ‘To write a novel is to find many other ways of being alive.’

Deborah Levy, author of Hot Milk, chose a journey to explore an idea – ‘I wanted to write a novel about hypochondria’, which inspired, perhaps unusually early, the book’s title. To this she added a setting which had haunted her. And then came the characters whom Levy describes in terms of their relationship to each other rather than individual traits. A mother and daughter, the former dependent on the latter – the latter inhibited by the former. The permutations of the relationship that unfolded formed the ‘multiple stories’ in the book.

It’s the terrain of the novel which motivated these authors, perhaps, rather than a single, vigorous narrative. Two other writers spoke of this terrain but perhaps more from the reader’s perspective.

Otessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen, made it clear that she set herself the task a writing a successful novel, which would be chosen widely by both casual and committed readers. So she gave it a ‘traditional structure’ but was wise enough to deploy her own readerly interests to create a work that played with expectations and echoed great works that would satisfy her readers.

Graeme Macrae Burnet, author of His Bloody Project, also turned to his readerly self to ensure he got the best out of a vivid setting (which he knew) and a fascinating character (based in the pages of history). He presented his content so that ‘readers (can) decide for themselves the truth of what has occurred.’ (Or not.)

David Szalay, author of All That Man Is, didn’t seem to be thinking about the novel at all. At least: ‘I knew I didn’t want to write a conventional novel.’ In fact, he says he ‘stumbled into it by chance.’ In the autumn of 2012 he wrote a single story and, within six months, he ‘had this idea of a book of stories that would work together to express things that none of them would be able to express on their own.’

Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout, offered a number of impulses – starting with (another!) journey; (another!) evocation of place; but uniquely and significantly, I think, the chance to be someone other than who he has become, or whom people assume he has become.

Of course, I’ve extrapolated just a little of what the authors said, and drawn my own connections. There’s so much crossover, as well as contrast in what the writers had to say. Thien’s book is as much about identifying as Beatty’s is not. Macrae Burnet seems comfortable with readers pulling apart the threads of his book and perhaps Moshfegh would acknowledge that different strands will appeal to different audiences – whereas Szalay and Levy might forbid such unravelling.

You can read the piece yourself and draw your own conclusions. It was fascinating: reminding me that there are so many impulses that lead people into novel-writing, and that common approaches can lead to the diverse books. My conclusion is that making a book is part design – the shopping list of ambition that I wrote about recently – and part serendipity: the product that emerges when you let go of your plan and just write.

I suppose the main question is: will the authors’ own words inspire you to seek out the books? I admit to having read only Eileen  and All That Man Is so far. If you’ve already devoured them, is there a clear winner in your mind? And why?


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