Man Booker shortlist sets off literary storm

Fully booked: The shortlist of six was whittled down from 144 submissions. © Getty

Does it make sense to rank novels like horses? The six nominees for the highly prestigious Man Booker fiction prize have been announced. As always, the choices are very contentious.

Abraham Lincoln grieves at his son’s tomb in the dead of night. Two refugees teleport out of their country via a magic door. A 101-year-old former songwriter hallucinates in a care home.

Welcome to the books on the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, announced on Wednesday. The prize, which is open to new English-language novels, is the most influential literary award in the UK.

This year’s six nominated authors are a varied bunch. Three are American, two British, one Pakistani. They are evenly split across the sexes.

Veterans like Ali Smith are vying with novices such as 29-year-old Fiona Mozley, who wrote her novel Elmet on her smartphone while commuting.

The list has created a storm in the literary world. The nominees are celebrating — ”I already feel like I’ve won,” says Mozley. Bookmakers are taking bets. And, as ever, sceptics are asking whether the Man Booker should exist at all.

There are hundreds of major literary awards in the English-speaking world. They can make or break a novel: after it won the 2015 Man Booker, sales of Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings jumped by 933%.

This gives judges a lot of power. However, their choices are subjective and always meet with criticism. Some conclude that literary awards are pointless affairs, which unfairly skew the market.

The write stuff

“These awards do more harm than good,” say some. Authors write to express themselves, not to beat others. Literature is not a sport. By turning it into one, these awards create the impression that only a few novels deserve to succeed.

“Come off it,” reply others. Not only do awards give deserved recognition to the winners, the competitive aspect gets people interested in books in general. They encourage us to discuss what makes for great literature. That’s a good thing.

You Decide

  1. Are literary awards a force for good?

Activities

  1. Imagine the Man Booker is presenting a one-off award for the best English-language novel ever published. What do you think should win? Explain your choice in a 500-word letter to the selection committee.

Some People Say...

“‘Classic’ — a book which people praise and don't read.”

— Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Man Booker has been held annually since 1969. This year’s winner will be announced on October 17th. He or she will receive £50,000.
What do we not know?
Who will win. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, an experimental novel about the ghost world inhabited by Lincoln’s dead son, is the favourite. But the judges change every year and the winners are famously hard to predict.

Word Watch

New English-language novels
The book must have been published in the UK in the preceding 12 months.
Ali Smith
The Scot has been nominated three times before, but never won. Autumn was quickly written in the months after the Brexit vote, and deals explicitly with the referendum’s fallout.
Elmet
Mozley’s dark book tells the tale of a violent Yorkshireman’s struggle to defend his home, which he built himself, against aggressive landlords. The novel takes its name from the last Celtic kingdom in England; its location is now known as Yorkshire.