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John Jenkins Aug 11


The August column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Summer is a-coming in and with it the Booker

by John Jenkins    

As regular as the first cuckoo of spring, the Test match at Lord’s and the Derby on the first Saturday in June, the longlist of the Booker prize has descended upon us. The organisers have been churning out the publicity, working towards a crescendo in the autumn.

As all good novelists know, the trick about a crescendo is to avoid - at all costs – anti-climax. Well, what have we got in the 13 selected titles and how will lobbying on social networking sites push the chosen few towards the bumper prize? Will it turn out, as it often does, an anti- climax?

A few sniffy people are considering that the judges have embraced genre fiction.  I love the way the cognoscenti pronounces genre. It always reminds me of Cleo Laine’s description of Charles Aznavour copycats “singing like nanny goats bouncing the edge of their fingers across their throats.”

Stephen Kelman, a former warehouseman, care worker and administrator (surely he must have worked on a North Sea trawler or stowed away and jumped ship in the United States?) is in the list with his debut novel Pigeon English, dealing with gang warfare in Peckham.

The book draws on the outrageous murder of little Damilola Taylor and became the subject of a bidding war before being picked up by Bloomsbury, a company transformed since winning the literary lottery by publishing J K Rowling.

I suppose that Pigeon English could be termed faction, a genre (I must stop using that word) made brilliantly popular by those masters of entertainment, Freddie Forsyth and Len Deighton.

Also included is former Man Booker winner, Alan Hollinghurst , whose novel Line of Beauty Julian Fellowes once described with wit and accuracy as an appalling choice.  As I sat on the same panel as he delivered his verdict, this reinforced my own view that Line of Beauty was in fact the worst winner ever.  I must admit, however, that many others run it close.

Of course, if you want to read about gay sex in anatomical detail in an overwritten novel that cries out for firm editing, don’t let me stop you.  You might also like to get hold of his thesis on Firbank, Forster and Hartley, three writers who were also gay. 

Then there’s Julian Barnes, very much an establishment writer, perhaps more revered in France than this country. He also writes crime fiction under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh, which reminds me that he was married to Pat Kavanagh, a brilliant literary agent who sadly died three years ago.  

If I were a betting man, I think I would have a small wager on Barnes. Not that I have read any of them at the moment. I am only going on pedigree.

The former MI5 director Dame Stella Rimington is in charge of the judges. But it’s no good expecting to find a John le Carré in the list. He scorns literary prizes and has said so often enough.

 It took the judges around two hours to get the list down to 13 from the 138 books read.

"It is a list of considerable variety, not only in the subjects but in the range of authors,” said Rimington.

The Man Booker's literary director Ion Trewin added: “ Every year is different from the previous one. I'm particularly pleased to see four first novels and also unfamiliar publishers. “

I must say I was surprised to see D J Taylor's Victorian mystery Derby Day, a book that could easily be called a thriller.  Just think how many times that great writer of racing thrillers, Dick Francis, would have won if his early books had been allowed in the Booker. 

Another familiar name is Sebastian Barry, shortlisted twice before, who is included with On Canaan's Side, in which an old lady looks back on a long life starting in  Dublin and ending in Chicago.

I’m sorry to say that I cannot tell you much about three Canadian novels which have made few sales in the UK: Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, Alison Pick's Far to Go and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.

Immediately one thinks of the Canadian colossus, Robertson Davies. In the 1970s his Deptford Trilogy was surely the best thing written.  

Other contenders for this year’s Booker include: Carol Birch's 11th novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, which made the Orange prize longlist, but not the shortlist; Patrick McGuiness for The Last Hundred Days, which examines the end of Ceausescu's tyranny in Romania; AD Miller's Snowdrops, a Moscow-set crime story; and Jane Rogers's The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

The panel, chaired by Rimington, includes journalists Gaby Wood and Matthew d'Ancona, politician Chris Mullin and novelist Susan Hill, who also had a stint as a Booker judge when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won for Heat and Dust.

The shortlist of six will be announced on 6 September and the winner on 18 October. He or she will win £50,000, but the prize is worth much more than that. Apart from the prestige, the winner can expect a dramatic increase in sales.

Once upon a short time ago you could tell a Booker judge by the stoop and deformed shoulders. This was caused by them lugging around a book bag far too heavy for literary types.

Now, however, they can get them on Kindle.

I’ll buy the Julian Barnes book in its traditional form, but I’ll wait for the shortlist on September 6 before considering the remainder and placing my hard earned tenner with the bookies.

John Jenkins' July column was entitled 'Guarding the Queen's English and was about English and Dr Bernard Lamb, President of the Queen’s English Society.

If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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