Thomas Sutcliffe: The longlist is all the Booker I ever want

Related Topics

I found myself wondering, the other day, whether it would make sense to have a Booker longlist if there was no such thing as a Booker winner. The point being that the longlist puts right so much of what's wrong with the finishing-line jamboree – the inherent nonsense of a literary knockout tournament; the strong sense, all too often, that committee-room politics have produced the winner, rather than overall merit. Everything that the prize is said to do for literature, the longlist does as well – by which I mean both "also" and "as creditably". Drawing attention to possibly overlooked titles? Tick. Generally arousing an interest in current writing? Tick. Redressing the parochialism of British letters? Tick.

Indeed, given that the longlist has a much greater scope and fluidity, it could be argued that it fulfils some of these functions rather better than the shortlist and the announcement of the final winner. But would it work without the element of further competition? Sadly, I doubt it. I don't much care which of the 13 longlisted books finally takes the big cheque, but I imagine there are lots of people besides publishers and bookies who do.

In the meantime, anybody who doesn't has plenty of time to enjoy the pleasures of the longlist, so much less invidious than later heats, and so much better at representing the breadth of a reader's experience. You could argue, I suppose, that a longlist isn't really that different from the great spreads of holiday-reading recommendations that newspapers publish at this time of year, but there is one crucial difference: the judges have pretty much read everything – even calling in some books that publishers didn't think had a ghost of a chance. Their selection isn't a snapshot of the Brownian motion of ordinary literary life, in which we bounce from book to book, and often whizz past genius on the way to a collision with the entertainingly mediocre. Their freeze-frame is more comprehensive than that – and, what's more, it's an image that's been subject to just the right amount of peer-group pressure. The longlist needn't provoke tit-for-tat exclusions or agonised horse-trading precisely because it is longer. And yet the consensus isn't meaningless.

That doesn't mean that it's immune from controversy – the very fact that the judges have read everything leaves them particularly exposed to comment. How could they prefer Child 44 – a gripping thriller but not one that really jumps the genre fence – to Tim Winton's Breath or Helen Garner's The Spare Room? But here, too, the longlist enjoys a crucial advantage over the debate generated by the final announcement of the winner. By then, only a handful of novels will be eligible for the status of having been "inexplicably overlooked". Right now, on the other hand, every novel published this year still has a stab at that consolation prize.

It's possible for a novel to gain more publicity through being left off the list than by being included on it – and it's good publicity, too, heartfelt and passionate. It isn't competition that's the problem with the Booker Prize. Serious readers will always compare one novel with another and argue about their comparative merits. The problem is that you have to come up with just one winner.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The message displayed on the monitor of a Piraeus Bank ATM in Athens. The Bank of Greece has recommended imposing restrictions on bank withdrawals  

Get off your high horses, lefties – Big Government, not 'austerity', has brought Greece to its knees

Kristian Niemietz
A church in South Carolina burns after a fire breaks out on June 30, 2015  

America knows who has been burning black churches, but it refuses to say

Robert Lee Mitchell III
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map