The Daily Telegraph
Brevity the soul of wit as Booker turns page
Shorter books are back in fashion for literary prize after judges hail novels with ‘not a word wasted’
‘I’m quite in favour of short books. I quite like the brevity of them. I think compression is a real skill’
A 116-PAGE novel has become the shortest ever Booker Prize nominee, with its author declaring that “elegance is writing just enough”.
The judges selected Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan as one of six books on the shortlist.
They also chose Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, which is 152 pages long but shorter than Keegan’s book by word count; and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, which comes in at 237 pages.
The longest book on the list is Glory by Noviolet Bulawayo at 403 pages, with the other two contenders – The Trees by Percival Everett and Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – comprising 335 pages and 386 pages respectively.
Brevity appears to be back in literary fashion, after shortlists dominated by doorstop novels. Two of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell sagas won the Booker: Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.
Eleanor Catton’s 832-page opus, The Luminaries, won the prize in 2013; the 2019 shortlist featured Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, which ran to 1,000 pages and was turned into a 45-hour audiobook.
The judges said that the length of a book did not correspond to its quality. “There are books that are short, and we spent as much time reading them as the longer books. Some of the smaller books have magnitude and not a word wasted. We certainly didn’t elect this group of books to make your lives easier,” said Shahidha Bari, an academic and broadcaster.
Her fellow judge, novelist and critic M John Harrison, said: “I’m quite in favour of short books. I quite like the brevity of them. I think compression is a real skill.”
Alain Mabanckou, the French-congolese novelist, poet and professor, added: “Running is not a matter of distance. It is the way you are running.”
Keegan, an Irish writer, said when Small Things Like These was published: “This is a novel, efficiently told. Unfortunately, this is often mistaken for what is condensed, and I have no time at all for what is condensed. Something needs to be as long as it needs to be.”
She said in an interview with the Booker Prize Foundation: “Elegance, to me, is writing just enough.”
The novel is the story of a middleaged man named Furlong, a coal and timber merchant in 1980s Ireland. There he comes across a young woman incarcerated in one of the country’s notorious Magdalene Laundries.
Keegan said that she kept the book succinct because “Furlong, my central character, isn’t someone who says much. A longer novel would not have suited his personality.” The shortest book to win the prize was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (1979), which was 132 pages long.
Neil Macgregor, chair of the judges, said of the shortlist: “The prize is to encourage people to read, and to talk about what they are reading. We chose books we enjoyed and believed other people would enjoy. And you can enjoy quite difficult things, you know.”
If Alan Garner takes home the prize, he will be the oldest Booker winner – he will turn 88 on Oct 17, the day of the ceremony. Garner’s publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of Harpercollins, did not initially submit his book for consideration.
The judges have the option to “call in” titles that they think may be worthy of the prize.
Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said 4th Estate deserved no criticism. “If I were a publisher, I’m not sure I would automatically have submitted that book,” she said, alluding to Garner’s singular style.