Spoiler alert: it’s not good.
I think the bookworm world is divided into two camps: those who slavishly follow book awards and those who don’t. I am firmly in the latter camp. And I know this after a year and a half of research… Well, not really, but I have made a concerted effort to read more Booker Prize winning books in the last year. The only trouble was- finishing them!
You see, having gone through the list of 53 title winners, I’ve found very lacklustre results. Very few sparked my interest to begin with (just 39%), a fair few I managed to pick up were DNFs (4) and the majority I didn’t like (9 out of the 14 I finished)! That left very few successes- a mere 5 books in fact!! Quite simply that is not enough to inspire me to pick up more. Let’s break it down…
Lincoln in the Bardo– not my thing at all. An experimental novel following real-life events, it came across as pretty pretentious.
Shuggie Bain– gloomy and not for me! As a bonus there were also hints of misogyny in the dehumanising descriptions of women.
Seven Moons of Maali Almeida– a part of me was impressed by this book. There’s an unusual use of second person, which works for the most part. There’s a poignancy to the political commentary. And there’s a power to the language. AND YET- for far too much of it I was bored and felt like I was going in circles. I simply had no compulsion to read on- which is the basic thing a book should get you to do.
Luminaries– I felt zero connection to this story and ergo no will to continue. Needless to say, this book didn’t exactly shine for me.
*Bonus* Nominee: Hot Milk– I picked this up specifically because it was nominated, but ye gawds I’d be damned if I was going to finish it. Such a slog.
The Ones I DISLIKED:
Girl Woman Other– BIG NOPE! Call me old fashioned, but I actually like punctuation.
Finkler Question– WTF why did this win?! Lacking the wit and humour it promises, this is as much of a letdown as a whoopee cushion.
Midnight’s Children– we all know stream of consciousness is not to my taste.
Amsterdam– how?? HOW IS THIS ON THE LIST?? Look, I’m not a fan of McEwan, but even as a fan, how could you put this book forward? It’s not his most morally interesting (Atonement). It’s not the most structurally intriguing (Saturday). And it’s not even his most emotionally interesting (Child in Time). Amsterdam is a great big nothing. Read the premise and it might sound intriguing- but I assure you, it is not.
God of Small Things– OOF. This one started out as promising. I liked a couple of the lines individually and it’s well written, but by the end I was grossed out and not a believer in this book.
Schindler’s Ark– as much as fictionalised stories can work, this really should have been non-fiction. I didn’t like the way this was written. It was too reverential of Schindler to be impartial and too focused on this one man to take into account all the countless people whose stories were interwoven with his.
The Sea the Sea– sluggish and endless as the ocean, reading this felt like drowning in dull dishwater. Desperate for you to see its cleverness, this is loaded with too much telling (even for me). It simply carries on and on, getting nowhere fast. I know the main character is supposed to be in love with the sound of his own voice- yet this really is insufferable to read. I am truly baffled by the acclaim- the plot is all over the place and the characters aren’t as interesting as the author seems to think they are.
*Bonus* On Beauty– presented as a homage to Howard’s End, yet lacking all the charm of the classic.
The Ones That Were Meh:
Milkman– forgettable. I remember what this was about and nothing else.
The English Patient– I’ve no patience to talk about this. There were some good descriptions and characterisation, I simply never got attached to it.
*Bonus* Nominee: Treacle Walker– I had such high hopes for this one… and it was just ok. There were moments of beautiful prose, but not much in the way of a plot. For someone who is so good at writing compelling plots, this one was weak. It was more of a feeling than an actual novel. I liked parts of this; I didn’t love it though.
(And Last But Not Least) The Ones I Actually Liked:
Wolf Hall– one of the few historical fiction books based on a real figure I actually liked. And there’s good reason for it: Mantel’s masterful characterisation and perfect plotting.
Bring Up the Bodies– it should be no surprise to see I was impressed with how Mantel brought the second of her Cromwell books to a close.
Life of Pi– I’m wowed by the plot, the prose and the philosophical musings.
Remains of the Day– stunning and human, Ishiguro’s sparse style beautifully illuminates the intricacies of people’s personalities and relationships.
The Sense of an Ending– in a sense, I shouldn’t really like this book. Much like the Sea, the Sea, it has an unlikeable hero, who makes you grind your teeth at times. Yet the teasing tone of the author, coupled with pockets of self-awareness made this intriguing. I was surprised by how much I liked it.
And that’s it! That’s the sum total of my Booker Prize experience.
Clearly, I am far from the expert, since I struggle to maintain enough interest in these books. Clearly, literary prize winners and I don’t often get along. None of this is intended to throw shade at people who enjoy Booker Prize books or indeed the people who write them (okay maybe a little shade at some of the books)- it’s just to say my taste doesn’t line up. I have been struggling to figure out why that might be (is it that these books are too lofty? too grown up? or simply too much??) I don’t have the answers. All I know is I won’t be making a concerted effort to read the next winner’s work.
And that’s all from me! What do you think of Booker Prize winners? Do you love them or loathe them? Let me know in the comments!
12 thoughts on “My History with Booker Prize Winners”
I once read the whole shortlist as ‘Personal Development’ so that I didn’t have to go on a course called ‘Making Libraries Better’. My colleagues thought that I won that game, I wasn’t quite so sure!
Oooh, The Remains of the Day is a favourite of mine! Can’t say I’ve attempted any of the others though – prize winners don’t tend to be my cup of tea!
I’m with you – award winners usually leave me cold. And bored! Same goes for Oscar winning movies, usually. You used the word pretentious, and I think that’s all too often the case.
If a book has “Won Award X” on the cover, I avoid it.
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I’m afraid I use the Booker to figure out which books to avoid!
Loved remains. On the whole, I’m usually unimpressed by award winners ng books
I’m with you. Anything marked “literary fiction” tends to be a big no for me, and I find myself not enjoying many of these award winners. (My exceptions would probably align with yours — Mantel and Pi, but that’s about it.)
I haven’t read a lot of the Booker Prize books, but I’ve definitely seen others say the list was very hit or miss for them.
I liked ‘On Beauty’ more than ‘Howard’s End’, but yeah, generally put off by books that focus more on telling you they’re a literary novel than on being good. Whether stream-of-consciousness, odd/limited punctuation, etc, work or not depends on the writer’s skill and purpose in applying them, while some are just like ‘well, this is what serious books do right now, and I’m serious and clever’, which is bunk.
So about your point at the top… I do follow book awards, but I make sure they are awards that interest me. So for example, I was really interested to see what the Nebula Award winners would be, but I don’t care at all about the Booker Prize winners. I look at genre first, and if it’s not a genre I enjoy reading (*cough*lit fic*cough*) then I don’t care how many awards it has won.
I’ve read a few of these, mostly for classes, and they weren’t all terrible. On the other hand, they weren’t books I would have read on my own. I don’t particularly enjoy experimental books or stream of consciousness, or books that try to be deep by imparting life lessons or by being generally depressing. But those are also the types of books that seem to win awards.
Awards don’t prove a book to be good. Now a days you has to have the “right” views and politics to an award.