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Howard Jacobson Pulls Off Booker Upset

Novelist defeats favorites McCarthy, Carey

Marc Tracy
October 13, 2010
Howard Jacobson, victorious, last night.(Stuart Wilson/Getty Images)
Howard Jacobson, victorious, last night.(Stuart Wilson/Getty Images)

“I’m not the English Philip Roth, I’m the Jewish Jane Austen,” novelist Howard Jacobson told us a few days ago. Last night, Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for his The Finkler Question. This was a substantial upset: Jacobson had been the betting man’s biggest underdog, at 8:1 odds, and that was before this past weekend, when Ladbrokes actually stopped taking bets due to the suspiciously high amount of money that came in for the odds-on favorite, Tom McCarthy’s C. This was also, according to the Guardian’s arts correspondent, “the first unashamedly comic novel” to win the prestigious, 42-year-old prize, which is annually awarded to the best English-language novel published in the British commonwealth. In addition to McCarthy, the other longlisted authors were Peter Carey (a two-time winner), Emma Donoghue, Damon Galgut, and Andrea Levy. The previous Jewish Man Booker winner appears to be Anita Brookner, who won for Hotel du Lac in 1984.

Jacobson, who had been longlisted twice before, accepted the award in London “to unusually loud and sustained applause,” reported The New York Times. He told the crowd: “I’m speechless. Fortunately I prepared one earlier. It’s dated 1983. That’s how long the wait’s been.” The head of the five-judge panel, Sir Andrew Motion, insisted that the long-time-coming quality of Jacobson’s win “never came into our minds.” He added, “Having said that, there is a particular pleasure in seeing somebody who is that good finally getting his just desserts.”

Want to read more about Jacobson? You’ve come to the right place! We published an interview with him on Monday. We published, for the first time in the United States, Jacobson’s sensational 1999 profile of American ping-pong champion Marty Reisman. And our books critic Adam Kirsch reviewed The Finkler Question last week. We also hosted him on a podcast nearly three years ago, even before he was a bigwig Man Booker shortlist-er.

Still not had enough? Check out this essay he published last Saturday on the definitional necessity for novels to be funny. And to give you an example of the Jacobsonian wit, please find (below the jump) an exchange that did not make it into the final cut of our interview, in which the novelist recalls which prominent American magazine chose not to publish his Reisman profile, and how he got revenge.

I wish you the best with Booker Prize.

It’s a longshot.

We love your work.

I think this is fun that you’re doing the Marty [Reisman] piece. Tablet’s a lovely home for it. I’m really pleased that it’s there.

It’s a gem of reporting and writing.

Well, I’m delighted. I told you it was commissioned by the New Yorker. Bill Buford commissioned it, but the man who’s the editor of the New Yorker

David Remnick?

Never hit it off with Remnick. We did a debate. He came over here with his New Yorker team, and we did a debate at the Cheltenham Festival, against my newspaper, the Independent. He was on his side with Simon Schama and Anthony Lane, and we killed them. We absolutely killed them.

I don’t say that’s the reason he spiked my piece. But he never seemed to enjoy that defeat in the right kind of spirit. He spiked the piece because he thought this piece just didn’t have it, so I’m really delighted that it found this home.

[Remnick responded: “The Independent did indeed defeat a team from the New Yorker a year or two after we beat The Telegraph. The truth is the truth and shame is everlasting.”]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.