At the alternative Booker Prize five novels, from a year that predates the beginning of the Man Booker in 1968, are considered by five speakers from the Cheltenham Literature Festival programme.
Claire and I have attended this three years in a row. It has become not a question of ‘would you like to?’ or ‘shall we?’ rather, ‘are you okay for the Booker?’
Despite a few hiccups when we thought we might have to miss this year, everything got worked out at the last minute. So I didn’t discover which titles had been set until we were on our way, and Claire read the blurb out:
“Our all-star line-up of novelist Madeleine Thien, journalist Alex Clark, The Times Literary Editor Robbie Millen, Mostly Lit’s Raifa Rafiq and author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott debate the merits of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had the Man Booker Prize existed 60 years ago.”
Claire paused, then added, ‘I’ve heard of some of them, but not read any. I rely on this event, and you, to provide me with interesting new reading experiences.’
‘No pressure then,’ I said. ‘Well, Things Fall Apart has been on my shelf for a couple of years,’ I said, ‘but somehow I keep putting off starting it.’
‘I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ said Claire. ‘Does that count?’
‘I loved that film,’ I said. ‘But it was very different from the book.’
‘So, what do you think of the list?’
‘It should make an interesting debate.’
With which statement I ascended to the role of prophetess. You may all stand and raise you hats in recognition of my perspicacity. Thank you.
Okay, okay, so maybe there’s a teeny particle of exaggeration at play here. It was clearly a strong list.
Claire and I discussed the other years we’ve watched, when one, or even two, weak titles were included. In fact, we once watched the champion of a novel vote his own book out at the first stage. I couldn’t see anything so obvious in this 1958 list.
‘Maybe the Achebe?’ said Claire.
‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘it’s been recommended by so many interesting readers and writers that there’s got to be a lot going for it.’
This year’s panel had as much difficulty as I did in reducing the selection even by one. Interesting doesn’t begin to touch what happened next. Once each panellist had pitched the novel they were championing, the discussion opened up, and soon shifted to the nature of judging in general.
The question was, how one title could be selected when the choices are so dissimilar in style and content. The conversation developed – oh boy, this was right up my street. Panellists identified historical context and social commentary; examined characterisation; explained plot; considered philosophical depth and insight.
On the one hand, pity ‘the chair’, James Walton, who struggled to keep the conversation focused on compare and contrast, and to prompt the panel to stop agreeing, and backing each other up. Then cheer for a panel that took up their task with such good natured energy, that they turned this from an interesting event into one that I would happily have seen extended for another hour… at least.
The outcome? Claire’s going to borrow my copy of The Bell, and I’ve moved Things Fall Apart to the front of my TBR shelf. Oh, yes, it was the Achebe that won.