Literary prizes are always exciting. In the early 2000s, we set out to read the entire Booker Prize longlist. It was the kind of thing one undertook in the early, earnest days of the longform blog. But conversations about the longlist became so contentious at the Booker Prize website that everybody was banished and the comments deleted.
It was 2009, the year that the satiric memoir, Me, Cheetah: My Life in Hollywood, made the Booker longlist. Some irreverent judge had done some fast, possibly drunken talking about the silly faux memoir of Cheetah, the chimp who starred with Johnny Weismuller in the Tarzan movies. The other judges must have been convulsed with laughter.
“Do you have Me, Cheetah?” I asked a librarian.
Poker-faced, she said it was in the biography section.
“In the biography section?” Perhaps I had misheard.
No, it was in the biography section!
The author of Me, Cheetah, James Lever, must have been chuffed to make the Booker longlist. One can only imagine the mirth it caused. And here in the U.S. I wondered if librarians had lost their minds when they catalogued it as biography. But if I remember correctly, it was an error of the Library of Congress, not the local library.
Well, Me, Cheetah gave me a few laughs, though I was relieved it didn’t make the shortlist or win the prize. I adore satire, but one doesn’t want to go too far. Curiously, my favorite literary prize is not the famous Booker but the Women’s Prize (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Every year I am excited about the longlist, because it has introduced me to such great writers as Helen Dunmore, Clare Fuller, and Amanda Craig.
This year I will not attempt to read the whole longlist, but I have finished Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, an edgy retelling of the Medusa myth. Haynes’s deconstruction of the tangled relationships among the violent, impulsive gods, the intelligent, nurturing gorgons, and the whiny teenage demigod, Perseus, is entertaining and exquisitely written. And yet I would call it a long shot for the shortlist, because retold myths do not tend to win awards.
Mind you, I do not pretend to have the power to predict the shortlist. I’m not doing the numbers, and I don’t read much new fiction anyway. No, I prefer the classics, moldering out-of-print books, and twee twentieth-century comedies.
Still, one loves to make wild guesses. No less than three of the longlisted titles have been choices of celebrity book clubs in the U.S. And so I’m suggesting that serious consideration should be given to Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperfield (the Oprah Book Club), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club), and Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis (Read with Jenna Book Club).
That said, I am not a big Kingsolver fan. My husband is the Kingsolver fan in the family, and I’m waiting for his report on Demon. I can tell you that Eric Anderson at Lonesome Reader, the vlogger extraordinaire on new fiction, predicts that Kingsolver will win.
I shall now say a few cautious words. I have begun reading O’Farrell’s clever, lyrical, addictively readable historical novel, The Marriage Portrait, which untangles the web of the life of Lucrezia Medici. From what I’ve read so far, I would be thrilled if this lively book made the shortlist.
I have not read Tara Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, but I’m going to be consistent here: it has a shot, because it was a celeb book club pick.
Glory, by NoViolet Bulawalyo, which I gather is a modern take on Animal Farm, made the Booker shortlist last year. I predict it will find a place on the Women’s Prize shortlist. Why? Because I love talking animals and want an excuse to read it.
I also hear that small presses play a role on longlists these days. Perhaps that will boost Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Charco Press) or Parini Shroff’s The Bandit Queens (Allen I& Unwin) into a strategic position.
Meanwhile, I will try to read a book or two on the longlist .
And do tell me your shortlist predictions!