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Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected

The 2018 Man Booker longlist has well and truly set the cat among the pigeons. A graphic novel (or “comic” as Sabrina's creator Nick Drnaso determinedly calls it)? A piece of “pure” crime fiction (Belinda Bauer's Snap)? A verse/prose novel (Robin Robertson's The Long Take)? Only one former winner included (Michael Ondaatje) and a roster of great names omitted (Peter Carey, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Ali Smith. . .)? The list has had some commentators reaching for the cold compress yet the surprise is that the reading public should be surprised at all. As one judge whispered to this column: “When you're in the meetings it's pretty clear-cut what will or will or won't make it or nearly make it so the concept that so-and-so constitutes a surprise inclusion of omission really is a world away.”


This is not then a longlist that set out to cause a fuss but rather to get people talking about – and then reading – books they most likely haven't heard of or didn't suspect were quite so good. It is a list too that has invited speculation as to who the driving force behind some picks might be. Among the judges is it Val McDermid who is most responsible for a fellow crime novelist making the cut, or the graphic novelist Leanne Shapton who pressed most ardently for Drnaso's Sabrina?


The inclusion of Sabrina has dominated the coverage around the longlist. An opinion piece in the Guardian welcomed the selection of the first comic book to be Man Booker longlisted in no uncertain terms: “The urge to share fiction that enlarges, uplifts or otherwise challenges the spirit is the reason for the existence of the Man Booker prize,” wrote the critic Claire Napier, “so to include texts that contain strong pictorial elements does not seem egregious. Sabrina, a modern mystery about a missing woman, has been longlisted this year because it’s an incredible piece of narrative craft. This is good news for comics, cartoonists and literature in general.” It was a sentiment shared, among others, by Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard, who wrote that “It’s a shame I can only say this with words, rather than pictures, but a graphic novel being listed for a major literary prize has been long overdue.”


After working their way through the greatest number of submissions ever – a staggering, daunting, and possibly unkind 171 – the judges are now able to catch their breath at last. The judges can at least feel good about themselves: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose and Leanne Shapton are, at this moment in time, unquestionably the five most informed readers of contemporary fiction in the world, bar none. After their herculean task, re-reading the longlisted 13 titles should be a comparative doddle, especially since they have until 20 September before they announce their shortlist. It is at that point that the list can take on a more traditional appearance or remain unexpected and innovative.


The longlist announcement also saw the start of a new Man Booker partnership with IKEA. The Scandi home-stores giant has created “Reading Rooms” at its Wembley outlet that play home to “book clubs” where members of the public can read and take away a copy of one of the 13 longlisted titles. The rooms will run until 5th August and one-hour reading slots can be booked online. An IKEA representative said that the initiative enabled bookworms to “curl up with a book (which they can also take away with them) and unwind into a wonderful state of escapism in their own cosy, personal living room”. The idea came about because the company found that 64 per cent of Britons believe that modern technology actually brings stress into the home rather than relieving it. Home is not for swiping, clicking and channel hopping but for page turning.