Photo credit: Cockburn Libraries via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
The novels on the 2016 Man Booker short list don’t have many reviews on Amazon.co.uk. They are not really popular books.
I realised this while I was doing something completely different. I was trawling through Amazon.co.uk. I was looking for email addresses of reviewers. It’s about time I tried to get some reviews.
I am an independent writer. I have two novels and a novella up on line, each in three editions. And I haven’t done a thing about marketing and publicity.
My novels are certainly not popular books. I don’t yet have a single review on Amazon.co.uk.
I came across A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner. I downloaded the free sample of A Brief History of Seven Killings to my Kindle app some time ago. I didn’t finish it. For my taste there was too much research and not enough imagination.
Marlon James has attracted 372 reviews. That’s more than many of the household names in British literary fiction tend to get. It’s well up in the lower reaches of the mass market.
James is doing quite well. Yet A Brief History of Seven Killings isn’t a truly popular book. Truly popular books attract a lot more reviews than that.
Truly Popular Books
Photo credit: symphony of love via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA
The examples I am going to give are completely random. They are books I happened to stumble across while I was looking for email addresses. All the figures I give are for February 25, 2017.
The Martian by Andy Weir, what you might call a ‘last contact’ story about an abandoned astronaut, has 4,662 reviews on Amazon.co.uk. That’s popular. Remember these are just the readers who took the trouble to review.
Ready Player One, a ‘gamerpunk’ young adult novel, is also popular. It has 1,180 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk.
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story about the importance of theatre and music to civilisation which sounds quite sophisticated. It won amongst other prizes the Arthur C Clarke award. It is by Emily St John Mandel, who denies it is science fiction. Ms Mandel has attracted 783 reviews.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is about a group of young men, one of whom has a history of childhood abuse. That’s a story which would be too difficult for a lot readers. Nevertheless Ms Yanagihara has attracted 613 reviews.
These are popular books. They are not trivial books. Anyone who tried to dismiss them by using, for instance, some binary notion of a distinction between culture and entertainment, would be doing something silly.
Three of the four books are in one way or another speculative fiction. That is probably why Ms Mandel can win the Arthur C Clarke award, but not even be shortlisted for the Booker.
Reviews, sales and interest
Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Reviews are not the same as sales. I don’t really know how reviews convert into sales. What online reader reviews indicate is interest. A popular book attracts reviews.
We have to be careful about interpreting community reviews on sites like Amazon. Sub-genres like syberpunk have fans. Writers have follows. That distorts the figures.
Using reviews as a measure of interest is rough and ready. The very great merit of interest as a category is that it enables us to bridge the apparent gap between a notion of academic quality, seen as elitist, and a commercialism that is seen as crude.
Mr James’ 372 reviews, despite the distinction of A Brief History of Seven Killings and Mr James’ eminence as a Man Booker winner, has 8% of the reviews of Mr Weir. And Ms Yanagahira, despite not being a household name in the UK, has 165% of the reviews of Mr James.
This does not suggest that the book that won the Man Booker in 2016 is a book that interests the reading public very much. And I think it is possible that the readers who post reviews on line are the committed readers. Their view counts.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a popular book in a way. It just isn’t as popular as some other books.
Not a very interesting list
Photo credit: delgrosso via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND
The writers on the 2016 Man Booker short list are, in descending order of the number of reviews they have received on Amazon.co.uk, Graeme Macrae Barnet, David Beatty, Ottessa Moshfegh, Deborah Levy, David Szalay and Madeleine Thien.
Don’t know these names? Neither do I. They haven’t written a lot of very popular books.
The books have received an average of 119 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk. That isn’t bad. But, for what are supposed to be the best six books of the year, it isn’t very good.
Beatty and Moshfegh are American. Thien is Canadian. Levy is a prolific British author of whom I have never heard.
The first surprise – although it probably shouldn’t be – is that it is not the winner that attracted the most reviews.
The winner was David Beatty’s The Sellout, billed as a satire about race. It has 189 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk.
It is in the same league as Genesis, by Karen Slaughter, with 193 raeder reviews, or Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land with 196 reviews on Amazon.co.uk.
Genesis is a medico-legal thriller, a rather specialised sub-genre. It is number three in the Will Trent series. Writers of genre are advised to write series. It is said to be good for sales.
Good Me, Bad Me is about a woman in a protection programme whose mother is a serial killer. I say no more.
These are books that are bumping around the bottom of the mass market. This is the company that The Sellout is keeping. They are not very popular books.
Graeme Macrae Barnet
Graeme Macrae Barnet’s His Bloody Project, by contrast, has 288 votes. It is as if Barnet won the Nova, and Beatty won the Hugo.
His Bloody Project is probably a bit rough and tough for nice people who run the Man Booker. It is about whether the murderer is mad.
His Bloody Project sounds like what is sometimes known as a contemporary novel, rather than literary fiction. Contemporary fiction is often driven by an idea, rather than character. Contemporary novels tend to be more popular books than literary fiction.
Barnet has 6% of the reviews of Andy Weir, and 24% of those of Ernest Cline, the authors of really popular books.. He has however 152% of the votes of David Beatty, the winner.
Barnet is garnering the same order of reviews as Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks or Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Love and Those who Stay.
A Boy Made of Blocks is apparently a best seller. Best sellers are of course about rank order, not quantity. I do not wish to mention the subject of A Boy Made of Blocks. I would get a reputation for hardness and cynicism, which would to some extent be justified.
Elena Ferranta has written other popular books about the same characters. There has been quite a lot of publicity. And the publishers always put pictures of pretty girls on the cover.
Mr Barnet is in commercially very respectable company.
The next shortlisted book in the rank order is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. It is a thriller.
Ms Moshfegh has garnered 123 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk, 43% of the number that Barnet managed. It is a bit of a drop-off. Eileen is not obviously unpopular. It’s just not a very popular book.
Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, for comparison, has 120 reviews and Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has 111. Ms Moshfegh is keeping company with the worthy and the dull.
The Edge of the Cliff
Photo credit: Daniele Zanni via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA
The big drop-off comes half-way through the list. There is a long tail. Half the books on the short list have less than fifty reviews. It’s quite striking.
Fifty reviews isn’t bad. There are independent authors who would feel they were on the point of breaking through if they had fifty reviews.
These aren’t independent authors. They are authors who have been shortlisted for the premier international prize in their genre.
No-one, apart from the judges, appears to be very interested in them. These really are not popular books.
Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, has 47 reader reviews. That is 16.3% of the number of reviews that Barnet has. Hot Milk is apparently a family saga.
Hot Milk sounds very healthy. Who, after all, would want to buy and read a family saga called Strong Coffee?
For comparison Homegoing, by Yaa Gyaasi, got 48 votes and Lies: The Gripping Psychological Thriller that will Take Your Breath Away, by T M Logan, has 52.
Homegoing is apparently also a bestseller. Homegoing is also a family saga. It stretches over two continents and three generations. You get a lot more family and a lot more saga for your £8.99. Having read the very long subtitle, I do not feel I require any more information about Mr Logan’s book.
I think that these writers would like to have popular books on the market. I don’t really think that they’ve managed it.
David Szalay’s All That Man is has 39 reviews, 14% of those that Barnet got. All That Man is consists of nine unrelated stories about men.
This sounds self-consciously literary. It is probably meant for professors. iterary fiction, by contrast, is a genre among others. It is meant for the carriage trade.
I wondered if Mr Szalay had an MFA and went on line to check. I found no evidence either way. But he did go to Oxford.
Mr Szalay. I also learned, has been the recipient of both the Betty Trask Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I do not have the faintest idea of what either of these distinguished awards are, and I have no real desire to find out.
Mr Szalay, I rather suspect, would rather be admired than write a popular book.
Mr Szalay, commercially, is not in very distinguished company. In Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen has 40 reviews. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, has 41. I do not want to know what A Gentleman in Moscow is about.
Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We have Nothing is about a Chinese refugee who tells the story of the Cultural Revolution to her hosts in Canada. It has 30 reviews, 10% of those gained by Barnet.
It is difficult for Mainland Chinese writers, as they are known, to tackle the Cultural Revolution. Since the partial reforms under Deng Xiaoping they have been able to write about such matters as the ‘sent-down youth’. They are not allowed deal with the violence. If they try their books are banned.
The Cultural Revolution is even more difficult for writers in the Chinese diaspora. They are not close to their own history. They are no closer, really, than the white folk are.
Ms Thien is in the same league with The Lost Daughter of India, by Sharon Maas with 27 votes and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time with 33.
The Daughter of India has a dreadful cover. Ms Smith has perhaps been oversold as well as overvalued. She has written more popular books before.
The Man Booker Prize
Photo credit: brizzle born and bred via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA
The Booker Prize attracts massive publicity. The contestants appear on the evening news looking awkward in black tie and cocktail frocks. They have slots for a week on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. They read extracts from their books in quiet, meaningful voices and answer bland questions from John Humphries.
This is quite leaving out the leaks, the quarrels and the scandals. There is also money involved. The industry loves it.
The practical consequences are not that obvious. Hilary Mantel’s publisher got excited when she won. He thought it would attract more sales. To underline his point he said he was going to order another thousand copies.
Another thousand copies? For the winner of the premier international literary prize? That’s ridiculous.
The administrators spend more time explaining the rules than what the prize is supposed to be about. It has been going for so long that the public – or at least that relatively small section of who are interested in such things – have their own ideas about what the Man Booker Prize is about.
The public think the prize is about literary fiction. The public also think that the Booker Prize is about finding the best book published in the country in that year, and now of course in the world.
The novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 were not all, or even mainly, literary fiction. One novel, His Dark Materials, is contemporary. Eileen is a thriller and Hot Milk, as a family saga, is a subtype of romance. All that Man is is literary, but not literary fiction. It smells of the library. Only two novels, Beatty’s and Thien’s, were recognisably literary fiction in the ordinary sense. So that’s not true.
The public, I think, assumes that books are on the shortlist because they have a chance of winning. That is what we reasonably think the fuss is all about. That’s not true either.
Four of the novels on the Man Booker short list in 2016 were not contenders. They were not going to win. Why in that case were they on the short list? Was it a consolation prize? Or were they just makeweights?
With the greatest possible respect to Mr Beatty and Mr Barnet, while their books have readers and admirers it is very hard to think they were the best books in the world that year. There is no reason to assume that 2016 was a particularly bad year.
There are some organisational problems. Publishers are allowed to nominate directly and the jury, which is not always obviously well qualified, change every year. A ballot, and revolving three-year terms, might make a lot of difference.
While I write this right-thinking aesthetes everywhere are in despair. La La Land is about to sweep the Oscars.
OK, I admit it. The Man Booker is merely silly, and pretentious. The Oscars are are truly awful.
The difference is that film criticism is robust, aimed at cinema-goers and done by qualified people. We know that Moonlight is a better movie.
Literary journalism in this country is in decline, even in terms of column centimetres. It’s not even really about books or for readers. It’s about literary London, for literary London and by literary London.
Readers don’t pay any attention to literary journalism. The people they trust are the community reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon.
If the Booker Prize wanted to renew itself, it would have to involve committed readers. The problem is not the reading public.
It would also be a good idea if it stopped excluding speculative fiction. Those are some of the best books.
To read Andrew Ravensdale’s earlier post Literary fiction, cult and popularity click here
For more details of Andrew Ravensdale’s novel In the Night the Men Come please click this one
For the official website of the Man Booker prize please click here