The funny thing about the Man Booker Prize is that it’s more often judged on the merits of its exclusions than its inclusions. Never diverse enough, “too readable” last year and “decidedly unstarry” this year, coverage is almost always skewed towards the negative, because “Six brilliant books nominated for prestigious prize” probably isn’t going to set Twitter on fire.
Of the chief complaints listed above, I’d argue only one is credible: we need to see more people of colour and better LGBT representation on Booker shortlists. But that’s an issue that has been discussed at length by better and wittier people, and it’s not the focus of this blog.
What I’d like to talk about is the big, fat, meaningful success of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. A surprise nomination, a wild card, an underdog or outsider: pick a synonym, any synonym, for “complete fucking shocker” and the press has already used it. Its appearance on the shortlist has astonished critics for two reasons. First because it is a crime novel, and second because it was published by “tiny” Scottish imprint Contraband. This might border on reductive (Contraband is an imprint of Saraband, who won the Saltire Society’s inaugural Publisher of the Year award, not to mention being one of the most successful publishers in Scotland), but the fact that Burnet’s appearance on the list does seem to confound so many expectations proves that His Bloody Project is a historic nomination. Indeed, if it’s so inconceivable that an indie crime novel published in Glasgow might make the shortlist, we’re looking at a book that has smashed boundaries, exceeded all expectation and shaken the establishment. Does that sound hyperbolic? You may think so, but remember that Burnet is only the seventh Scot ever to be shortlisted for the prize since its inception in 1969, its past nominees being Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown, Ali Smith, Gordon Williams and Andrew O’Hagan, while the only Scot to have taken home the prize was immediately subject to a torrent of criticism for his use of language.
The British literary establishment huddled together defensively as [James] Kelman…in his heavy Scottish accent, made a rousing case for the culture and language of “indigenous” people outside of London. “A fine line can exist between elitism and racism,” he said. “On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether.” (The New York Times, 29 November 1994)
What a fine thing then that His Bloody Project, which is so rooted in the culture, dialect and history of a small town in Scotland, has been praised by Booker judges for its ‘willingness to play with language and form’. No language bias in sight, this time around. And playful it is, in a decidedly Scottish way. A literary puzzle piece that is clever without ever being pretentious, it is a self-referential, self-reflective novel that sits in direct creative dialogue with such Scottish literary greats as The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Poor Things and Ossian. Scots Whay Hae probably said it best when they called it a love letter to Scottish literature.
Both prior to and after its nomination, the novel has received extremely positive reviews. So while he might not be quite the household name that Coetzee is, whose exclusion from the shortlist has been much remarked upon, it seems clear to me that Graeme Macrae Burnet is a very starry nominee indeed, and his inclusion on the shortlist a transformative achievement not just for himself, but for indie publishers, for Scots voices and for all those who write from the margins.