Jonathan Raban was driving between Essex and London in 1985 when he learned over the radio that his novel Foreign Land hadn't made it onto that year's shortlist for the Booker Prize. He had to pull over. "It was a huge disappointment," he remembered last week, from his home here in Seattle. At the time, there wasn't a longlist for England's most prestigious literary prize, like there is today.
Raban's Waxwings--which he has been in Europe promoting and which will be published here next week--is on this year's longlist, although that's about as far as he thinks it will go. (As this column went to press, the shortlist hadn't been announced.) He speculated last week on which other books won't advance to the shortlist--namely, Atwood's Oryx and Crake ("too fucking schematic"), Amis' Yellow Dog ("old Amis jokes, old Amis characters"), and Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello ("This is the Booker Prize for fiction, it's not the Booker Prize for philosophy"). He also thinks he knows which will win.
Were you anxious about whether you'd make this year's longlist?
Look, there is nothing to celebrate by being on the Booker longlist. For me it was a finger-chewing experience only because I had been scheduled to make a book tour which would involve London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, and was to start out on that tour three or four days after the longlist was announced. I really did not think it would be worth my going over to the United Kingdom if the book did not appear on the longlist because the only fiction London journalists are interested in is fiction which can win the Booker. If the only defining feature of my novel was that it had been ruled out from possibly winning the Booker, there would be no point whatsoever in my going over there. I mean, who the fuck would be interested?
What did you think your chances were?
Fifty-fifty, exactly. I think in retrospect, actually, I was putting my hopes too high because the number of novels--particularly Peter Carey's [My Life As a Fake], particularly Jim Crace's Genesis--which were not on the list shocked me. And I have to say that some of the books on the longlist shocked me too. I have no expectation of being on the shortlist. I give myself a 7 to 1 against chance of being on the shortlist and a zero chance of winning the prize. I can tell you right now who will win the prize: It will be Monica Ali and it will be Brick Lane, and the prize will be so deserved and so popular. It will be, as it were, the best Booker Prize in recent history. If she doesn't win the prize for that book I will eat a square of carpet.