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Bailey’s Shortlist 2017 Discussion

10 May

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While I have not read every book on the Bailey’s longlist (mostly because I either can’t get the remaining titles/have 0 interest in them), I have finally finished the 6 books on the shortlist! And since the winner will be announced in the not-too-far-future, I thought it was high time to have an informal discussion about the books on it. I’ve reviewed them all so I am not going to rehash all my opinions here, but just generally discuss how I feel about the shortlist, who I want to win, and its strengths and weaknesses.  To start off here is the list, in order of least- to most-favorites.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

The Power, Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo

The Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeline Thien

I can break these into 3 general categories.

Would be (mildly) upset if they won: I feel that books with large, glaring flaws really do not deserve to win a prize, no matter how strong certain aspects are. Unless it’s a prize that values that specific aspect (like Goldsmiths, for example). So it’s no surprise that I would be a little annoyed if First Love or The Power won. I feel like First Love is kind of a universal head-scratcher: it’s not a bad book, but it combines a total lack of plot with just okay writing and a not-original concept. I actually liked FL, but I do wonder how it even got on the list.

The Power is probably a controversial pick for the “please don’t win” category because it is well-loved. But I found it to have very glaring issues that I discuss in my review.

Basically neutral: It’s no surprise that the middle two on my list, Stay With Me and The Dark Circle, are my “meh” books. I didn’t hate them, and in fact I enjoyed both books. They’re just not overly memorable and I had an issue with each of them (SWM is a little melodramatic and TDC lacked a bit of plot depth & cohesion). But they both feel like very prize-y books, especially this particular prize, so I can see either winning. I wouldn’t care too much if they did… but I also wouldn’t be upset.

Favorites: Rounding out the list are The Sport of Kings and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I absolutely adored both of these books. DNSWHN was already a favorite after I read it for the Man Booker last year, and was my runner-up winner for that prize (Hot Milk was number 1 in my heart). I feel like both are just very strong all around: deep characters, complex but not convoluted plots, gorgeous (though very different) writing. And in fact they are quite similar! Both are family sagas that deal with very tough topics (racism, oppression, etc), and both have a ‘hobby’ as a backdrop and ongoing thematic/metaphorical element (horse racing for SoK, music for Do Not Say). Both are lush and dense and easy to sink in to.

Winner prediction: While Stay With Me seems to be the fan favorite, I predict that The Power will win. It just seems very Bailey’s, no? Not overly literary but well written, has strong feminist themes, and commercial appeal. The Sport of Kings has been shortlisted for a LOT of other awards though, so maybe this is finally its time to shine.

In general, I did not find this to be a very strong shortlist. It had only two really memorable titles for me, and they were ones I would have read anyway (or in the case of the Thien, already had read). I honestly think the longlist is much, much stronger overall, and most of my favorites (like The Lonely Hearts Hotel, my #1 fave Bailey’s book, and Hag-Seed) were left off (along with the fan-faves The Essex Serpent and The Gustav Sonata). I honestly cannot fathom how something like First Love got on over them. In fact, I am not even sure what Bailey’s is looking for when they pick a shortlisted novel. Most of the truly innovative books didn’t make the shortlist, and they don’t seem to have been picked on specific things like strong plots or standout writing. So what gives? Then again, judging a prize is obviously not a quantifiable thing, and perhaps I should leave it up to the professionals. But I will be salty about Lonely Hearts Hotel until the day I die.

On Literary Prizes & Reading Longlists

24 Mar

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Two years ago, I impulsively decided to read the Man Booker shortlist. The reasons why are still a bit fuzzy, to be honest. I think I just saw a lot of people talking about it and wanted to be “in on the discussion.” It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made in my reading life: one of the novels on it (A Little Life) is a top-ten book of mine now, and I absolutely fell in love with two others (Satin Island & The Fishermen). I read 5 out of the 6 in total, and of course the one book I skipped is the one that won, and I wasn’t crazy about the other two I picked up (A Spool of Blue Thread & The Year of the Runaways). So while I didn’t love every book I read for it, reading the shortlist was overall a very positive and motivating experience.

For 2016 I was planning to read the whole longlist, but ended up getting involved in two other prizes as well: the Man Booker International and the National Book Award. I read about a third of MBI, all but one of the NBA books, and the entire Man Booker longlist. And for each of them, I ended up reading a book on my year end favorites (Man Tiger, The Throwback Special, Hot Milk). Obviously I plan on doing that again this year, with another prize thrown into the mix (Bailey’s).

That sums up my short history with literary prizes, but what I’d like to discuss is what I find so appealing about them. I have found that most people who read prize lists tend to focus purely on literary fiction, while my reading is all over the place (to put it nicely). Some of the books on them are ones I would read anyway–two on the Bailey’s longlist were on my TBR and I’d already read another 2, for example–but generally the majority of them are not books I would pick up on my own. And I don’t tend to give them higher ratings overall. In fact, most of my Bailey’s reads are in the 3-3.5 star range, with only a few breaking through to 4-5. So why do it? Why devote so much time and effort to reading 40+ books a year just because they are on a prize list?

1. The sense of community. There is a pretty substantial group of bloggers/vloggers who read through these lists, and quite a few of my Goodreads friends do as well. Even if you are not engaging in direct conversation with people about them, there are so many reviews and discussions out there about whatever group of books is on a longlist. You can read prediction posts, watch videos of people discussing the selections, go on message boards and try to guess the winner. I engage in a lot of literary discussion both online and in real life, but nothing comes close to this because we’re all reading the same books when it comes to prizes. If you talk to someone about books in general, chances are slim that you will have a large overlap. If you’re talking about a prize list, there’s a pool of 10-20 books you will both have opinions are.

2. The motivation. The main difference between casually reading a book and reading a nominated book is the time frame. You know going into a longlist that there are dates in the future for the shortlist & the award ceremony, which means if you want to read them while it’s relevant… you need to hurry up! I know many readers hate pressure, but I thrive under it. Before going into the Bailey’s longlist in early March, I was 5 books behind schedule for my reading challenge. I am now 2 books ahead, in about half a month. I found myself devoting more time to reading, and focusing more on the books I was tackling. Each book had a sudden sense of importance: I wanted to know what made it worthy of the longlist, so perhaps more thought went into my reading than usual. Each book comes with the question of “what makes me a Bailey’s book” or “what makes me a Man Booker book.” It’s like a timed puzzle that I very much want to solve.

3. Knowing that I will find at least one amazing book. I have yet to read a longlist that didn’t end up helping me find a new favorite book, and that still holds true in 2017: I have no doubt that both Fever Dream and The Lonely Hearts Hotel will end up on my year-end favorites. I look over all the beautiful covers and wonder, “which one of you will be my new book love?” Of course I pick up every book I read hoping to love it, but my history with prize lists has taught me that I am absolutely guaranteed a winner.

4. Keeping up to date with fiction. Every book on the longlists I read is, at the very most, a year old. Of course I have a massive backlog of books I want to read, so perhaps this isn’t a fully positive aspect, but I love reading what’s on the cutting edge of fiction. I want to know what book trends are happening right now, what styles and topics are popular. For example, there are two book on the Bailey’s that focus on horses. And last year, longlists were dominated by discussions on race relations. Books with a cultural anthropology slant also seem to be trendy right now, with one nominated in 2015 and one in 2016 for the Booker. This is not exactly vital information, but I love having my finger on the pulse of modern fiction.

So, lovely readers, what is your opinion on reading longlists? Are there any prizes you follow, and would you recommend them to me?