Of the six books on the Warwick Prize for Writing shortlist, only one, Montano’s Malady, was fiction. An elaborate pan-literary game was facing up against histories of music and mental illness, a scathing attack on US political economists, an investigation of the state-sponsored murder of a Guatemalan priest, and a book which claims, in its own title, to be attempting to reinvent the sacred. It’s not to sell Enrique Vila-Matas short (see the upcoming Boar review of Montano’s Malady) to point out that his slim novel was in some exceptionally heavyweight company. And recall that these are the books from a year in which Michael Portillo had to defend his choice of Booker Prize winner with the poorly chosen assertion that his top criteria was a novel that “knocked our socks off.” A critic in the Sunday Telegraph wrote that Portillo and the judging panel should simply have announced that, instead of giving the award to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, they were going to give the money to charity on the grounds that there was no novel worthy of winning.It’s nonsense, of course, to make the claim that no good fiction was published in 2008. But that particular brand of mainstream, highishbrow ‘literary fiction’ that wins mainstream awards often seemed tired. If we’re going to be playing the trick of comparing different forms of literature, then how does The White Tiger, no more a brilliant and groundbreaking depiction of the ‘real’ India than Slumdog Millionaire and every bit as much a cynical performance piece, really face up to complex and highly topical non-fiction like The Shock Doctrine or Reinventing the Sacred?
One of my favourite books of the year, which was non-fiction, and which, unfortunately, came out too late to be considered for the Warwick Prize, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, posited an interesting worldview. The Piraha tribe don’t believe in myths (and hence, only have a non-fiction literature) and refuse to believe versions of events if the person telling the story was not there personally to witness it. Perhaps information overload has led to a kind of Piraha-esque disillusionment in 2008; hopefully, however, we’ll be seeing plenty more fiction books on future Warwick Prize shortlists instead.