A Shady Past: The History of the Shadow Panel

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkThe 2016 Man Booker International Prize announcement is almost upon us, with the winner revealed on Monday.  That means, of course, that the Shadow Panel announcement is also just around the corner (as always, we’ll be stealing their thunder a matter of hours before the official decision is revealed).  Before we get to that, though, I thought it would be nice to look back a little to the origins of our little quest to keep the judges honest; you see, while this is our first Shadow MBIP, it’s actually the fifth time we’ve thrown ourselves into the quest to find the best work of translated fiction published in the UK.  Let me refresh your memory about how things have gone in previous years…

Stu Allen (Winstondad’s Blog) founded the Shadow Panel back in 2012, and I was a late addition to what turned out to be a seven-strong initial group.  Back then, of course, we were shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and big names that year included Haruki Murakami (1Q84) and Umberto Eco (The Prague Cemetery) – although the biggest book belonged to Péter Nádas, with Parallel Stories coming in at a shelf-breaking 1300+ pages…

Right from the start, we realised that our views would rarely coincide with those of the official And The Winner Is...panel, led by our arch-nemesis Boyd Tonkin.  An early leaked report suggested that the shortlist would contain one book from Israel and one from Germany – which it did, except that they weren’t the ones we’d been expecting…  In the end, we were fairly disappointed by the official winner, Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness (translated by Jeffrey M. Green), much preferring our inaugural champion, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale (tr. Victoria Cribb).

The following year saw a streamlined five-person Shadow Panel tackle one of the stronger lists in recent memory.  Quite apart from the first appearance of Karl Ove Knausgaard, we enjoyed books by Ismail Kadare (The Fall of the Stone City), Andrés Neuman (Traveller of the Century) and eventual winner Gerbrand Bakker (The Detour, translated by David Colmer).  Of course, there was also Chris Barnard’s Bundu, which we all placed safely near the bottom of our pile – and which Tonkin and co. shortlisted…

Big Time IntertextualityThis decision was even more bizarre when you consider that Satantango (tr. George Szirtes), omitted from the shortlist, went on to win the Best Translated Book Award and help László Krasznahorkai receive the Man Booker International Prize (for career achievement) in 2015.  In our own final run-off, Satantango was highly commended but ended up losing in a split-decision (3-2) to a popular winner, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque (tr. Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey).

In 2014, six intrepid bloggers took on the task of reading a longlist with a few big (and familiar) names.  Knaus81b91-img_4872i was back, and so too was Javier Marías, with The Infatuations.  While most of us were pleased with the eventual choice of Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, that had more to do with our affection for the publisher (Comma Press) than the book itself, as it failed to make our shortlist.

This year, we were very close to crowning our first female winner as Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge and Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast were both near the top of our rankings.  However, in the end we opted for Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels (tr. Philip Roughton), a wonderful book and our second Icelandic winner in three years 🙂

Although we didn’t know it at the time, 2015 was to mark the final edition of the IFFP, so it was only fitting that we assembled the largest and most international Shadow Panel yet, eleven bloggers spread over four continents.  While there was some surprisingly innovative writing included on the longlist (for example, the later BTBA winner from Can Xue, The Last Lover), this year saw us finally lose our tempers with the official panel after they saw fit to leave out one of our expected favourites, Zone by Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell).

EODAfter lengthy deliberation, we decided to call the book in, and it went on to prove a sound decision, with Zone only falling at the very last hurdle by seven votes to four.  The winner, of course, was pretty much a foregone conclusion, with Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (tr. Susan Bernofsky) the favourite from gun to tape.  Erpenbeck thus became our first female winner, and only the second in the history of the official prize (after Marta Morazzoni’s The Alphonse Courrier Affair, translated by Emma Rose, in 20o1) – although that information only came to light by accident at the start of the 2015 process…

So there you have it – a short history of the Shadow Panel 🙂  Our eight judges for this year’s edition are well aware of the weight of the past on their shoulders, but I feel that we’ve done a good job with our deliberations and are confident that we have chosen a fine book as our winner.  You’ll have to wait a couple of days to find out what it is, but I can tell you one thing – this was by far the closest decision ever…

Here are all of our judges so far (if you spot any errors, let me know!):

Stu Allen (2012-2016) * Tony Malone (2012-2016) * Mark Stanforth (2012-13)
Gary Moon (2012-13) * Lisa Hill (2012-13) * Rob Burdock (2012)
Simon Quicke (2012) * David Hebblethwaite (2014-2016) * Bellezza (2014-2016)
Tony Messenger (2014-2016) * Jacqui Patience (2014)
Grant Rintoul (2015-2016) * Clare Rowland (2015-2016) * Emma Cazabonne (2015) Julianne Pachico (2015) * Chelsea McGill (2015) * Joe Schreiber (2015)
Lori Feathers (2016)

22 thoughts on “A Shady Past: The History of the Shadow Panel

  1. Can you tell me a little more about how the shadow panel works? Does every panelist read every long-listed book before the short-list announcement? I’m thinking of doing something like this for a Canadian book prize… and thanks for the wrap up, this is a great list of books!


    1. Laura – We do try 😉 This year I think four of the eight judges managed to read all of the books, with a couple of others not far off. We score each book on a number of criteria, and the shortlist is made up by seeing the highest average scores.

      A gentle warning, though – there is already a group shadowing the Giller Prize, one of the first of these Shadow Panels (just in case you were wanting to do the same thing!).


  2. Looking forward to your verdict and hope you pick the right book (채식주의 자 obviously).

    Of course the Goodreads Mookse and the Gripes Forum Shadow-Shadow Jury plans to steal the thunder of the Shadow Jury by announcing our winner a matter of hours before the Shadow Jury steals the thunder of the main jury.


    1. Paul – The Shadow-Shadow Panel, perhaps? 😉

      Well, my lips are sealed for now, but my post will go live at 9 a.m. on Monday (UK time)…


      1. I will time ours for 6 am then! And from your post below I can narrow your choice to 3. Actually Pamuk is currently 2nd in the Goodreads group ranking – not quite sure why the Shadow Jury seem so opposed. From tweets several judges seemed anti before they had even started on it.


        1. Nope, none of those three made our Shadow shortlist – we’re choosing from our own selection of six!

          I’m very surprised the Pamuk is so popular with your lot. I enjoyed it in parts, but it’s certainly nothing special, much more a crowd-pleasing middle-of-the-road book than a genuine contender. And I was probably one of the more sympathetic voices on the panel 😉


  3. When Detour won it happened to be the only book I’d read from the list, and I was immediately hooked, then thrilled to become a part of the Shadow Panel the next year. I would vote for the The Sorrow of Angels and The End of Days all over again. To me, they were the clear winners.

    This year, I’m not so clear. I feel pleased with what the Shadow Panel chose, which will soon be revealed, but I surely did love the other which was so close behind.

    Won’t it be exciting if our choice and the official choice matches? Then we’ll know the judges have some merit after all.


      1. Bellezza – It’s certainly possible, although the cynic in me is already bracing for Boyd to announce that Seethaler, Agualusa or Pamuk have won 😉 As for Gary. I hadn’t realised he’d stopped completely – as I kept seeing Tweets – a shame…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve really enjoyed being part of the Shadow Jury – I suppose I had a bit of practice as I often read many of the long-listed books in the years before my official acceptance! I, too, am excited to see if our choice echoes that of the ‘other’ jury.


    1. Grant – It’s still a very different experience to have to justify your choices to other people – especially when they have very different opinions on books 😉


  5. OK our Goodreads / Mooske and Gripes Shadow-Shadow Jury votes are in and it’s a big win for The Vegetarian – especially amongst the official shortlist.

    Official Shortlist
    1 Vegetarian 23
    2 Strangeness in my mind 9
    3 Story of the Lost Child 8
    4 The Four Books -4
    5 General Theory of Oblivion -15
    6 A Whole Life – 21

    1 Vegetarian 28
    2 Ladivine 17
    3 Death by Water 16
    4 Tram 83 14
    5 Story of the Lost Child 12
    6 Mend the Living 9
    7 Strangeness in My Mind 7
    8 Four Books -7
    9 Man Tiger -12
    J10 General Theory of Oblivion -17
    J10 White Hunger -17
    J12 Whole Life -25
    J12 Cup of Rage -25


  6. Paul – Almost time for our announcement – the only thing I’ll say is that our decision was *much* closer than yours!


    1. So we agree on the top 3.

      The lack of closeness in our scores largely reflects the scoring system / what people read.

      People were influenced by the official shortlist as to what they read so there was a relatively low proportion of votes either way for Ladivine and Death by Water and our system essentially gave +1 every time a book was ranked above another book, and -1 when ranked below.


      1. Paul – That’s why it’s never a good idea to go with the official shortlist – they always leave good stuff out 😦


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