Man Booker Prize judge Jon Day reveals what it's like to read a novel a day in the pursuit of 'the very best book of the year'.
Judges Jon Day (far right) with (left to right) Olivia Williams, David Harsent, Dr Amanda Foreman and Abdulrazak Gurnah
By Jon Day
(St John's, 2003)
This weekend I reached an important milestone as a judge for the 2016 Man Booker prize. At 2ft 8in, the height of my book stack has matched that of my eighteen-month-old daughter. My book pile will grow far quicker than she will – last year the judges read one hundred and fifty six books; I’ve just closed number twenty nine – but it felt like a significant moment.
When I was asked late last year whether I’d consider judging the most prestigious literary prize in the English-speaking world, it was the reading I first thought of. When Philip Hensher reflected on judging the prize, in 2001, he recalled that the reading load (which works out as something like a novel a day) had been no problem: he had read five novels a week since he was five years old. But I worried about fitting it around teaching; around writing; around parenthood. I spoke to past judges, who recalled snatching reading time wherever they could: actors had special book-pockets sewn into their costumes; other judges recalled snatching a few pages between courses at dinner parties. I asked my long-suffering partner if she’d suffer even longer. I asked my head of department if he’d mind me shirking my marking duties. In the end I decided it was too irresistible an opportunity to say no to. And so I had some new shelves built in my office and settled in to the most comfortable chair in the house.
The judges select the ‘Man Booker dozen’ in March, followed by a shortlist of six in April, with the winner announced in May
Man Booker reading is measured not in page numbers or amount of books, but in feet and inches; in pounds and ounces. Books as matter. Every few weeks a new box of books will turn up, borne by some beleaguered courier, to be added to the pile. The key to getting through it, I’ve found, is not to try to fit the reading around other things but to find, or create, uninterrupted tranches of time in which you are free to do nothing else. The flexibility of academia is an advantage here: if you get going by 6 or 7am you can get through your daily quota by lunchtime, leaving the afternoon free for teaching or writing. Every now and then you get a nine hundred page monster which sucks up a couple of days, but these are usually offset by a run of shorter books (I wonder if Julian Barnes’ win in 2011 for the slender The Sense of an Ending has encouraged publishers to take greater risks over what they consider a novel-length book to be?).
As I read I’m struck by a strange form of sadness: even reading at this rate – getting through maybe three hundred books per year – I’d only be able to read fifteen thousand novels in the rest of my lifetime. That’s less than a tenth of the total number of books published in the UK in an average year. But that, perhaps, is one reason why prizes like the Man Booker are still so important. Not so much as a form of critical ‘gatekeeping’, but as a way of extending and developing a critical conversation. The judgment of literary prizes will inevitably – particularly for those who don’t win – feel partly arbitrary, but it’s a kind of arbitrariness which, at its best, is underpinned by critical rigour; engaged open mindedness and, above all, intense debate.
How does one go about selecting the ‘very best book of the year’ (the only criterion stipulated by the Prize)? My fellow judges – poet David Harsent, novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, actor Olivia Williams and our chair, historian Amanda Foreman – and I have had one meeting so far. Much of our discussion was focused on how we might establish our own criteria of excellence. So far, I’ve found the lack of any more precise rubric liberating: discussing precisely what might constitute the ‘very best’ of fiction is almost as interesting as discussing the books themselves.
There’s a sense, of course, in which all critical judgements are inevitably belated: justified post-facto, they merely play catch-up to those first moments when you open a book and just know you’re in the presence of greatness. Vladimir Nabokov described in his Lectures on Literature the process of reading as, first and foremost, a bodily one. ‘Although we read with our minds’, he wrote, ‘the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.’ Whatever else I’m looking for as a Man Booker Judge, that tingle of the spine is what must come first.
Jon Day is a writer, academic and critic. He matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford, in 2003, and now teaches English at King’s College London. His essays and reviews have appeared in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, n+1, and the Guardian. He writes about art for Apollo, and is a regular fiction critic for the Telegraph and the Financial Times. His book, Cyclogeography, was published by Notting Hill Editions in 2015.
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