Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ruminations: The Man Booker Prize and the art of scowling

Authors usually have a sense of humour, but one would never know it based upon their author photo. Always contemplative - as if they're contorted with the burdens of humankind, as if they're Atlas carrying the Earth - they like to effect that they're smarter than you, and you shouldn't challenge that. And such effect is mastered in the art of the scowl. There's probably an MFA course in attaining such looks.

The Man Booker Prize judging committee - normally a rewarder of moderation and mediocrity, except when the author I want to win in fact takes home the prize - released its shortlist of books earlier this week. The Guardian responded by making the books sound like horses in the Kentucky Derby here. There were some surprises and some disappointments, although all the characters needed to make this an interesting 'race' are there: Heavy hitters JM Coetzee and AS Byatt are up against popular favourites Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. Plus, there's the backlash from people spiteful that Colm Tóibín failed to make the shortlist. (In my humble opinion, his novel Brooklyn didn't even deserve to make the longlist. I personally couldn't finish it.)

So in honour of the shortlist, I've compiled some amusing, scowling author photos of those still 'battling' it out:

AS Byatt wants to be the grandmother next door, but you know she's got a biting, split tongue. Finding a picture of her not smiling was difficult, so it's obvious that she stifled those angry photos long ago. To gossip, she and her sister Margaret Drabble haven't spoken in decades, and neither will say why. Byatt won the Man Booker Prize back in 1990 for Possession, which was made into a film by that name a couple years back with the abominable Gwyneth Paltrow. The Children's Book, her novel up for the award about a fictional famous children's author, sounds intresting, but it's as long as the Bible. I read her Little Black Book of Stories earlier this year and was enchanted though.

JM Coetzee is my personal favourite author, and Summertime rounds out his series of fictional autobiographies, or what he would call autrebiographies. Since he's adverse to interviews (there's a great one of him from Dutch television [scroll to the bottom] where you can quickly understand why he doesn't grant question-and-answer sessions, and why people probably won't ever ask him again), people therefore create the personality of this author to what they want to believe it is: reclusive, perhaps slightly lustful although removed from society, reticent. But his work is just too powerful even to ponder about the life of this author. Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker twice, with Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). He is a Nobel Laureate (2003).

Adam Foulds looks too young to be placed next to Coetzee and Byatt. Apparently he's also a poet, which inherently gives him a reason to be unhappy - small advances and few royalties. Foulds went to St Catherine's College, Oxford (a peeve of mine when at St Edmund Hall) and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, both Booker winners, attended. I might actually enjoy his nominated book, The Quickening Maze, as long as madness isn't a crutch.

Hilary Mantel seems like an intense, lugubrious one. Her scowl in this shot is piercing. I can't say I've read her novels or heard of her (now she'll want to decapitate me - apparently she wrote a New York Review of Books article praising Coetzee's Bach-like novel Diary of a Bad Year), even though she's a CBE. Wolf Hall imagines Thomas Cromwell of the Henry VIII court. Chances are low that she'll make the crossover to the other side of the pond if she doesn't win, although I could be wrong since it's probably a literary version of the Tudors (meaning artful, not less, sex). Lucky for her she's the bookies' favourite.

Sarah Waters has been on the shortlist before. In her feminist/hipster garb, we might have the best scowl/don't mess me with me subtle rictus of all. The Night Watch, 2006's nominee, gave Waters international acclaim and a large group of readers. Her new nominated book, The Little Stranger, sounds like an English literary version of Stephen King: haunted houses, class systems, post-WWII nerves. By the look of her she'd probably make a riotous acceptance speech. Nothing so soft as Aravind Adiga's last year.

Unfortunately I couldn't find any current photos of Simon Mawer that are angry at the world. So I went with this classic one, which looks like it's straight out of the 60s or 70s - the good guy author shot. He looks too charming here, which is why he gets mentioned last. How am I supposed to trust an author like him to dive into the annals of the minds and actions of humankind? Charm and good looks certainly don't do that. However, The Guardian commentators did mention that The Glass Room is the most Modernist novel out of the six, and its jacket is something beautiful. So I'd probably thoroughly enjoy this story of Judaism and Czechoslovakia before WWII.

The Man Booker will be announced with all its decorum in London 6 October. The winner will enjoy a surge in retail sales throughout the world and will certainly make the New York Times bestseller fiction list.

Do you have a preferred scowl of the gentlemen and ladies shown above?


farmlanebooks said...

Brilliant! I love this post!

I read all the long listed books this year and was disappointed by the short list announcement as most of my favourites didn't make the cut.

I am sure you'll love the Glass Room and I am really hoping that it wins.

Niki M said...

So funny and true about author photos. And what about the quirky ones you sometimes get, where you see half a head, or the writer's feet? 'I'm off the wall, I am. Look - you can't even see my face!' Not quite as bad as a scowl I suppose, but still trying too hard.

Colin said...

In my author photo I will be wearing a three piece suit, a cane, and a scowl that will make Hilary Mantel look like a corgi--one must look their best when contemplating the fate of humanity.

Kari said...

In my author photo, I'll smile like it's school picture day.

Marie said...

It's POSSESSION, not PERSUASION. Just sayin'.

Salvatore said...

Good catch, Marie. I must have had Jane Austen on the mind!

Salvatore said...

Also, I think my author photo would be most like Thomas Pynchon. That, or a bag over my head with a question mark between the eyeholes.

Elena said...

I can't not smile in photos. If my endeavours to become a fullfledged author fail, I'll know that's the reason why. :P