Baileys Prize shortlist 2016: why ‘A Little Life’ should win, and why it probably won’t

baileysshort2016

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quotes“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

  • A Little Life

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This is not a good year to be anyone other than Hanya Yanagihara, not if you’re queued up with her for the final round of the Baileys Prize for Fiction. There’s always one work of absolute perfection published every year, that one novel that dominates. In 2015, that one book was A Little Life, a gut-wrenching, teeth-gritting masterpiece that positively eviscerates the reader with its power, the magnitude of its genius, honestly portraying the gritty realism of how terrible and beautiful life is.

Whether the judges honor this remains to be seen. As so often happens, literary prizes often sidestep the “it” book of the year, the obvious winner, in favor of a lesser-known and very good book that by all rights should be the runner-up – that should have won had the one great book not been written. It’s a show of “yes, we know this one book is a masterpiece, but we’ve given it due publicity, now let’s give this almost as good book a chance.”

This will not diminish the greatness of the obvious first choice, though I question whether it’s a fair move. The thing is, it happens so often as to almost be predictable – irritatingly so. A Little Life should win, by all rights. No other book published in 2015 can touch it, which is why I posit the opinion it will not win, though I dearly hope I am wrong.

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quotesA Little Life asks serious questions about humanism and euthanasia and psychiatry and any number of the partis pris of modern western life. It’s Entourage directed by Bergman; it’s the great 90s novel a quarter of a century too late; it’s a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger.

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It’s a difficult book, grueling sometimes.  The themes are not easy, not pretty and succeeded in turning away scores of readers. Some of those whose opinions I respect, discerning readers who don’t suffer inferior writing gladly, have thrown up their hands in despair over A Little Life. And I get that. It’s not easy wading through the muck of despair, the brutality life’s capable of inflicting.

But here’s the thing: great writing should upset the reader, it should evoke strong emotion, make us face difficult truths. Its responsibility is to hold a mirror up to society, forcing us to search our souls. If it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?

Writing that skims along the surface forces no change. The pen is mightier than the sword, you know the expression? It has no meaning if the sword is dull. If the words don’t wound, no guilt is punished, no fakery stripped away.

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quotesYanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, “A Little Life” feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.

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It’s up to the Baileys judges now. I only hope they support art at its purest over a misguided sense of fair play. That’s what the Longlist was for, showcasing really good books representative of the best literature of the year, allowing a couple of spots for writing that’s good but not necessarily great. Whittled down to the Shortlist, only the best should remain standing. The time for being nice is done.

I hope they honor what literary prizes should reflect: rewarding the best of the best, judged by a jury of its peers. And, this year, the best of the best is A Little Life.

Best of luck to Hanya Yanagihara.

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