How to win the Booker prize (or at least get shortlisted)

Photographs of pompous man with a bow tie, moustache and pipe, representing the character Horace Tweed-Bottomley

I spoke to distinguished critic Horace Tweed-Bottomley about what it takes to win the Man Booker prize for fiction. These are his suggestions for the ambitious writer:

mock-serious man smoking pipe

Horace Tweed-Bottomley

1. Do not engage with social media. As ‘tiddlywinks324’ on Twitter you cannot be taken seriously. It would damage your reputation irrevocably if people discovered that you like Dancing with the Stars, watch cat videos on You Tube and that your current status is ‘Single and up for it’. Do you really think Alan Hollinghurst, AS Byatt, Peter Carey et al. are ‘friending’ people on Facebook or following other writers on Twitter? Of course not. They don’t even blog.

“The exception to the rule is literary black belt Margaret Atwood. Atwood was already a revered, award-winning writer before signing up for Twitter. Novices should not attempt this advanced manoeuvre.”

Literary seriousness is still associated with ‘old’ media. You may permit yourself to be interviewed on the wireless (that’s digital radio to you, young people) or in literary journals and broadsheet newspapers, but you should not sully yourself in the ephemeral, instant-gratification, short-attention-span world of social media.

“You need to be where the academics, authorities and gate-keepers are. Ask yourself, ‘What would Harold Bloom do?’”

2. Booker judges love novels about writers and sub-plots involving mistaken biographers, literary sleight-of-hand, academic rivals, the discovery or suppression of manuscripts and letters, secret muses and evasive writers (see Possession, Atonement, The Stranger’s Child, Arthur and George, Flaubert’s Parrot, Mister Pip, The Children’s Book, Small World, The Master, Chatterton). Both Atonement and The Stranger’s Child feature false or delusional literary legacies, unreliable witnesses and the separation of lovers by war (see point 12).

Ensure that your story includes an incompetent biographer or academic who fails to uncover the whole truth. As well as boosting your chances of making the Booker shortlist, this also allows you to make a pre-emptive strike upon your future biographers. Enjoy the smug satisfaction while it lasts; they’ll be rifling through your belongings as soon as your body reaches the morgue. (If you become feeble in old age, they may not even wait that long.)

3. Steer clear of genre fiction. This includes your publicly acknowledged reading tastes. It’s safe to say that you admire the work of Henry James, Kafka and Borges. Don’t tell anyone that you like a bit of John Grisham, Stephen King or Terry Pratchett when you’re at the beach. Don’t admit to spending time at the beach.

You can add a dash of speculative fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, horror, thriller and romance to your serious novel (see The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, The Little Stranger, Never Let Me Go, The Handmaid’s Tale), but leaven it with ironic meta-fiction about narrative conventions. If your story could be classed as ‘speculative fiction’, make sure your future world is dystopian, à la Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“If you really must slum it in the world of genre fiction from time to time, write those novels under a pseudonym. It’s no accident that Booker prize winner John Banville writes his crime novels under another name.”

4. Your novel should include a crumbling mansion in the English countryside that can serve as a useful metaphor for the passing of an era and the decline of the aristocracy.

The once-grand home should not only decay, or be defaced by modernisers, but be forced to earn its keep as a hospital, school or some other plebeian institution, neatly representing a class that must earn a crust or lapse into genteel poverty (see The Stranger’s Child, Atonement, The Little Stranger, The Remains of the Day).

5. Include social climbing, class tensions and lashings of nostalgia. The aristocrats should turn on the upstart in their midst when their own negligence leads to crime, scandal or loss (see Atonement, The Line of Beauty, The Stranger’s Child). Alternatively, the upstart should outlive the aristocrats (see The Little Stranger). Ambivalence is the key.

6. Borrow heavily from Brideshead Revisited. See points 4 and 5.

7. Write a magic-realist novel, or include magic-realist sub-plots, preferably featuring talking animals or exotic places (see Life of Pi, Midnight’s Children, The Famished Road). The Man Booker judges are likely to be British and will salivate over anything eastern, African or Latin American.

“You must be prepared to exploit magic realism in the way that a reality TV contestant uses a past trauma or body piercing. Don’t flash it too early, but make sure you get it out before interest wanes.”

8. Include the stuff of tragedy: regrets, misunderstandings, longings, doomed romances, epiphanies that come too late and things left unsaid (see The Remains of the Day, The Line of Beauty, The Stranger’s Child, Oscar and Lucinda, Possession, The English Patient).

9. Show the scars of colonial legacy (see Oscar and Lucinda, The Inheritance of Loss, Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things, In a Free State).

Had the Booker prize existed when Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, this novel would have made the shortlist, as Jean Rhys takes Jane Eyre and shows how Rochester’s abuse and confinement of Bertha is representative of the British Empire’s exploitation of its colonies.

A tip for would-be winners: you could give Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the Wide Sargasso Sea treatment, as the Bertrams’ wealth comes from the West Indies. It has the added bonus of featuring an aristocratic family in decline and a mansion in the English countryside (see point 4).

10. Be an Oxbridge man (Alan Hollinghurst, Howard Jacobson, Aravind Adiga, Salman Rushdie, Peter Ackroyd, Tom McCarthy, Simon Mawer, Adam Foulds, Philip Hensher, Amitav Ghosh, Indra Sinha, Matthew Kneale, Brian O’Doherty, etc.), or an Oxbridge woman (A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Zadie Smith, Emma Donoghue, Monica Ali, Zoë Heller, etc.).

“Remember, there are only two universities: Oxford and Cambridge.”

11. Never be funny. If you risk it, ensure that the humour is black and satirical (see Howard Jacobson, Aravind Adiga and DBC Pierre). See point 8 about tragedy.

12. Allow war to separate your lovers, but not just any war; choose World War I or II (see Atonement, The Stranger’s Child, The English Patient). Enough time has passed to make these wars seem heroic and perhaps even necessary, if tragic. (Lest we forget: all wars are brutal and wasteful, yet someone always profits from them, even novelists.)

The youthfulness of those who fell in the Great War makes them perfect fodder for rendering in both bronze and prose. Young boys dragged from an Edwardian and Belle Époque summer into the boggy mud of trench warfare — what could be a better metaphor for the loss of innocence?

If you were to write about, say, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghan wars, you would be stymied by the inconvenient existence of the damaged survivors, with their post-traumatic stress and Gulf War Syndrome symptoms. Public outrage over the abuse of prisoners of war and the targeting of oil-rich countries makes contemporary wars unsuitable for artistic romanticising.

“Like badly written stories, these conflicts continue to unfold messily, with no clear third act. Better to drag your characters through blood and mud at a time when sweethearts waited for hand-written letters and civilians suffered deprivations.”

13. Die. If being shortlisted for the Booker is not enough, consider death as a career move. Booker bridesmaid Beryl Bainbridge was awarded a posthumous prize; it’s so much easier to acknowledge someone’s achievements when they’re gone. This is doubly true of the incestuous and insecure literary world.

© JD Ellevsenv 2011

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