Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell and Ali Smith are among the British heavyweight writers who will compete for the Man Booker prize in its first incarnation as a global literary award, along with David Nicholls, writer of the bestsellers Starter for Ten and One Day, it was announced last week.
Thirteen novels were named on the longlist for the prize, which for more than 40 years has rewarded only Commonwealth and Irish writers. The rules changed last year, sparking fears that it would quickly be dominated by Americans.
In the event, judges chose four Americans: Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Karen Joy Fowler and Richard Powers. An almost American, Joseph O’Neill, who is an Irish-born US resident, was also named one of what is known as the Man Booker “dozen”.
This year’s chair of judges, philosopher AC Grayling, said it had been a vintage year. “They are very ambitious books and some of them tackle big issues of the day,” he said. “There’s a lot of perceptiveness and wisdom in these books, some of them are quite moving and all of them are very difficult to put down once you get into them – a feature of just how richly textured they are and what great stories they tell.”
Some eyebrows will be raised at only three female writers being listed. It is also striking for who is not on it – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters, Damon Galgut, Philip Hensher, Will Self, Nicola Barker, Linda Grant, Christos Tsiolkas or Donna Tartt.
Grayling said they had chosen the books on merit, not the nationality, gender or reputation of the writers. “We said to ourselves: ‘The past record is not going to count. We are not going to give a prize to someone who should have got it years ago. We are just looking at the quality of the books by themselves.'”
Completing the lineup
The only former winner listed is Howard Jacobson. He won in 2010 for The Finkler Question and is included for his yet-to-be-published J, a love story set in the future, which his publishers have said will be talked about in the same breath as Brave New World.
As widely predicted, David Mitchell, author of The Cloud Atlas, is listed for The Bone Clocks. The other British writers are Calcutta-born Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others, the twice-shortlisted Ali Smith for How to be Both, Nicholls for Us and Paul Kingsnorth for his crowd-funded novel The Wake – the most left-field title on the list, set in 11th-century Lincolnshire and told in a semi-invented Old English language.
Joshua Ferris, once hailed as the “new Jonathan Franzen”, is longlisted for his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which tells the story of an anxious dentist in a state of existential crisis.
Completing the lineup of works by US authors are Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, a comic tale of family love with a twist; Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World which explores themes including art world sexism and celebrity; and Richard Powers’s Orfeo, which the Guardian said was a fiction equivalent of reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise .
Joseph O’Neill – writer of the 2008 hit Netherland – is longlisted for his fourth novel, The Dog, not yet published and described as “a tale of alienation and heartbreak in Dubai”.
‘Taxingly obscure pretension’
The list includes books little noticed elsewhere. Few newspapers have yet reviewed Niall Williams’s The History of the Rain, for example, and the at-a-glance review in the Sunday Times complained the book “is so steeped in literary references, quirky meanderings and watery metaphors that it risks falling into the category of taxingly obscure pretension rather than sophisticated literary fiction”.
The list is completed by The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.
Grayling said “outstanding” books had unquestionably not made it. “All of us round the table would have liked the longlist to be just a tiny bit longer … but we are pretty pleased with the list from what is a vintage year.”
There are no debut writers this year and, arguably, the arrival of Americans seems to have edged out non-British Commonwealth writers.
Ion Trewin, the prize’s literary director, said it was more to do with the quality of the books, however. “I just don’t think it is necessarily one of the great years for the Commonwealth.”
Bookmaker Ladbrokes straight away named Mukherjee as a 3-1 favourite for the prize, followed by Mitchell and Smith at 6-1. They were offering odds of 2-1 for an American to win.
‘Novel as an artform’
Jonathan Ruppin, the web editor at Britain’s Foyles bookshops, said more familiar names on the list would help sales. “After a couple of years where the prize returned to its more traditional role of celebrating the novel as an artform, this year’s panel seem more taken by the many ways a story can be told.”
Unlike previous years, when Booker judges met over lunch or dinner, Grayling said he had chosen a more “austere” route of afternoon tea discussions. He was joined by five other judges, Jonathan Bate, Sarah Churchwell, Daniel Glaser, Alastair Niven and Erica Wagner.
They will now get the list down to six, announced in September, with the £50 000 winner named at a formal black-tie dinner.
The Booker longlist in full:
Joshua Ferris (US) – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Richard Flanagan (Australia) – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Karen Joy Fowler (US) – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Siri Hustvedt (US) – The Blazing World
Howard Jacobson (Britain) – J
Paul Kingsnorth (Britain) – The Wake
David Mitchell (Britain) – The Bone Clocks
Neel Mukherjee (Britain) – The Lives of Others
David Nicholls (Britain) – Us
Joseph O’Neill (Ireland) – The Dog
Richard Powers (US) – Orfeo
Ali Smith (Britain) – How to Be Both
Niall Williams (Ireland) – History of the Rain
– Guardian News & Media 2014