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For the first time a Western makes the Man Booker Prize short list, and other surprises.

September 7, 2011

Patrick DeWitt

As a reader titles are important to me and I usually turn aside books with overly cute ones, like say, The Sisters Brothers, by the Patrick Dewitt. Perhaps I was wrong — DeWitt’s darkly comic novel has become the first Western to make the Man Booker Prize short list.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

This year’s list of Man Booker finalists holds some other refreshing, if minor surprises: Two of the books are by debut novelists, forcing early favorites like Alan Hollinghurst and Sebastian Barry out of contention, and four are published by independent houses. Perennial bridesmaid Julian Barnes, oft-nominated, never winning, is favored by British bookies to take the prize this time.

As always at this time of year allow me to observe that British people will apparently bet on anything.

The exclusion of Barry (twice short listed) and Hollinghurst (a past winner)  has caused a bit of a stink in Jolly Ol’, especially after judging chair Dame Stella Rimington, a former chief of the British counter-intelligence agency MI5, remarked that the nominating committee prized “readability” over any other consideration.

“We want people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them,” Rimington told the Guardian, while another judge, Chris Mullin, a politician (!), told The New Yorker, “Other people said to me when they heard I was in the judging panel, ‘I hope you pick something readable this year.’ That was such a big factor, it had to zip along.”

Hmmm. The British — we love ’em, don’t we, with those posh accents and those aristocratic titles we pretend to understand and the way they wield the English language like they invented it or something, but they can also be odd ducks. Can you imagine a past FBI or CIA director chairing the jury for the National Book Awards? Me, neither. And a politician? Let’s ask Newt Gingrich or Joe Biden to sit on the Pulitzer judging. The very thought gives me a shudder.

Here’s the list: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes; Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch; Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues;  Stephen Kelman for “Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman; and A.D. Miller for Snowdrops; The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt.

And finally: The Sisters Brothers is the closest thing to an American novel ever to be considered for a Man Booker Prize. The most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom, it’s restricted to books by citizens of the former British empire. DeWitt qualifies as a Canadian, but the Sisters Brothers, a quirked up Western set during the California gold rush, which is about as American as you can get.

And by “American” I am referring to the United States of AMERICA, the only country in the western hemisphere with “America” in its name, or routinely referred to as America. Canadians are, of course, culturally American, having no culture of their own and exporting most of their premiere talent to New York or Los Angeles as soon as it comes of age.

Good for DeWitt, who, by the way, lives in Oregon. Maybe he’ll actually win. I’m still a little chary of that title — “Sisters Brothers — haw!” — but the Coen Bros. won me over with O Brother Where Art Thou?, so anything’s possible. Here’s a decidedly mixed review of DeWitt’s novel from the Guardian.

The winner will be announced in London at a big party on Oct. 18. The prize is worth £50,000, or about $80,000.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2011 1:14 pm

    “That was such a big factor, it had to zip along.”

    I almost did a spit-take of coffee when I read that one.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 8, 2011 10:20 am

      Yeah, I thought, well why didn’t you nominate Jeffrey Archer or Ian Rankin or Val McDermid or somebody and be done with it.

      • September 8, 2011 3:43 pm

        Hold on a minute. I would not put a writer like McDermid in with the Booker folks. She’s too good. One of the best crime writers going. I know you don’t read crime fiction, but she’s worth a look, esp her book “A Place of Execution.”

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