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BooksOctober 14, 2019

A books editor confesses: I haven’t read the Booker shortlist. Any of them


On the eve of the announcement of the winner of the 2019 Booker prize, Spinoff books editor Catherine Woulfe outs herself as a giant know-nothing. 

Booker time. Tomorrow morning I will sit there refreshing Twitter like the drinking bird on The Simpsons. A winner will be announced. And I’ll be gripped by a compulsion to buy it immediately.

I probably will! Because prizes! Thousands of other people will, too. 

The Booker bump, they call it: the predictable rocketing-up of sales after a win. And it endures, albeit diminished in recent years due to an apparent consensus that letting the Americans in ruined it for everyone and that the prize and the events around it are irredeemably elitist and pretentious.

To me, proof positive that something in Bookerland or maybe just bookland has gone seriously awry is the fact that “cheat’s guides” are a thing that exist. These are the top books boiled down into talking points. For people who haven’t read the books. So that they can talk about the books as if they’ve read them.

Such exquisite dickery! Imagine pretending that you’ve read a book just so you can sound smart. Imagine busting someone.

Much smarter, all round, to be up front. So these are my confessions.

I have not read any of the shortlisted six. Just as I have failed to read many, many other Booker books.

I have read everything else by Margaret Atwood and I want desperately to read The Testaments but The Handmaid’s Tale messed me up for a long time as a teenager and now it would be worse because I have a new baby. (For the same reason, I have not watched the TV show). So. I plead self-defence.

Ducks, Newburyport looks like something I would very much like except it also looks very long. Maybe when my nest empties and I have nothing to do but drink tea and pull weeds from my garden.

I have not read Wolf Hall even though the Guardian has just named it the best book of the 21st century, and then it also topped a Twitter-sourced list that was meant to push back against that Guardian one. Wolf Hall lives next to China Rich Girlfriend on my shelf and friends, I know which one I’m picking up first. 

Note: He’s Just Not That Into You has not aged well.

Milkman! Oh my god, Milkman. I tried about five times, and I was even getting paid to read it (by the Listener) but I could not haul my useless trashy lowbrow idiot self past page 60. I sent it back to the office. I refuse to try again. Somebody asked me what it was like the other day and I said it was like being stalked through a really boring town while also exercising and mumbling. 

I have read The Luminaries. I know this is a deeply not cool thing to say: I had to force it down. I appreciated the skill involved and the massive achievement that it was, the writing of it I mean, the mastery, that spinning, shifting spiderweb of a conceit, and I appreciated Eleanor Catton’s absolute owning of certain critics, but it was not a book I actually wanted to read (which of course makes me the problem, not the book). I’d loved her debut The Rehearsal but this looked nothing like it. The oblique, dreamy, pastel cover, the size, the colonial setting, all those men – I didn’t even contemplate reading it until it won the Booker. Her win was announced on my birthday; what else was there to do but trot up to Unity and buy it as a birthday treat? It fought me for two months, and every day I felt like not a proper reader, and resented my own bowing-down to Booker mania. 


Sometimes, of course, that coveted sticker lands on something I love regardless. Just as there is Milkman, there are Booker books I have read and adore. 

I love The Bone People so much that I’m scared to read it too often in case it gets diluted. 

That weird floating island in Life of Pi has stuck in my mind; I wonder about it every time I see mangroves.

My mouth waters when I think about The God of Small Things. Mango chutney! I could lick all her hot rich words straight off the page.

Vernon God Little! All fevered and dirty and rat-a-tat-tatty. Bizarrely, amazingly, to the point that I now doubt my own memory, right after winning DBC Pierre agreed to be interviewed by me, at that stage a New Zealand literature grad studying journalism and doing work experience for Hawke’s Bay Today. I can’t find the piece now but I remember we talked for an hour because I had to book a uni landline for an hour. What on earth did we talk about? Am I making the whole thing up?

The Overstory didn’t win last year but it should have, not least because it was up against Milkman, but then again who cares, and this is the thing – it remains a magnificent book that took root in my mind and changed me. And made me plant trees. I am grateful to have read it. I am foisting it upon everyone I know. It won the Pulitzer, I wheedle, neatly undermining my point here. 

Which is: prizes! Who cares! We should read what we like, what grabs us, what our poor old frenetic exhausted brains need at that moment. And we should refuse to feel stink, or stupid, if what we need right then is not actually anything like The Luminaries but more like Karen Swan, who specialises in Christmastime romance where everyone skis in Verbier and wears cashmere. Or Marian Keyes, or Dan Brown, or a tattered childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web

Firstly because a book is a time commitment: knocking one off will take hours, at least, likely spread over a few days. The Overstory took me two weeks. You want to want to be reading the book you’ve chosen, for all that time. 

All highly recommended by me, a giant know-nothing.

The other thing is that books demand headspace. To read is to shuffle all the other stuff of life to the side. How much room do you have in there though? How knackered are you, how anxious? Maybe right now you can only carve out space for Gone Girl. Maybe in a few days – maybe because the kids are back at school – you’ll have Kondo’d your poor old noggin to the point you can invite Eleanor Catton in. And maybe you won’t, and that’s fine too. Read what works! For you, not for the Booker judges who say things like “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

And maybe if I give The Luminaries another go I might love it! I was re-reading Jack Lasenby’s Travellers series last night. It terrified me when I was a kid, I bailed out halfway through. Now it is a joy and a solace. “Because we find and read the same book does not mean we always read the same story,” a shaman tells Ish, the protagonist. “Each time we come to a book we give it a different reading, because we bring a different person to it.”

That works both ways, of course: the judges who picked Milkman at the height of #MeToo might, given the escalating energy around climate change, pick The Overstory if they were shunted into 2019. And the me who despaired of Milkman might be all over it in a few years when I’m getting more sleep. Maybe.

In the meantime, while we await the announcement, might I direct you to Auē, the first novel by Westport journalist Becky Manawatu. It hasn’t had a lot of attention yet, certainly no prizes, but holy shit, it should. (We’ve a review in the works). It reminds me of The Bone People and of Once Were Warriors. The writing has a wild, intuitive sort of magic. You should read it! Or not! 

Just don’t judge a book by its sticker.

Send us your Booker confessions! What shortlisted books – from this or any other year – have you loathed, or struggled with, or been scared off by, and why? If we get enough we’ll run them all as another piece.

Keep going!