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

Share
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

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Engineering Design Manager (Mechanical)

£35000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: ENGINEERING ...

SSIS Developer Required - Leading Media Company

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A world leading media organisation is cu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Miami skyline  

A new wave of Latin Americans is invading Miami – and they're bringing in wealth

David Usborne
The first woman in the Royal Navy is history to command a major warship  

If we want true gender equality, Commander Sarah West must be treated the same as any man

Jane Merrick
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz