Surprise as heavyweights fail to make Booker Prize Shortlist
The debut novel by York bookseller Fiona Mozley has made the cut for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize shortlist, along with debuts by George Saunders and Emily Fridlund.
They are joined by Mohsin Hamid for Exit West (Hamish Hamilton), Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber), who are also finalists for the prize.
Chair of the judges Baroness Lola Young said it had been a “very collaborative” judging process with “no fights yet”. She went on to say they had been looking for books that either “enhanced understanding” or “challenged our thinking”, and each of the shortlisted titles “pushed against the borders of convention”.
Mozley’s Elmet (JM Originals), hailed by the judges as a “gutsy” and “forceful” first novel, is about family as well as a meditation on landscape in South Yorkshire. Published last month, it was the first ever acquisition of John Murray assistant editor Becky Walsh, who revealed Mozley wrote the story while commuting on the train.
The 29-year-old bookseller at Little Apple Bookshop in York told The Bookseller in July that making the longlist felt “really surreal”. “I didn’t expect anything like this,” she said at the time.
In praise of Mosley, prize judge and author Sarah Hall commented: “It’s not a slight book but it’s not a long book and it’s tremendously potent. The one thing that really travelled through everything is that very unusual, unique voice. It almost has the potency of a short story. And I think that’s what we all thought was coming through that gutsy quality ... It seems like a very particular book but, as with judging any literary prize, what is very local can seem very universal at the same time, and that is the strength of these books.”
Saunders, a prolific short story writer, is in the running for the prize for Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury). The fatherand-son story, which has already secured a film deal, features Abraham Lincoln and is set in 1862 against the background of the American Civil War. The judges hailed it “greatly daring and accomplished - a novel with a rare capaciousness of mind and heart”.
Fellow American Emily Fridlund has the third debut to be shortlisted for History of Wolves (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), set in a dying commune in the American Midwest.
Smith’s Autumn is part of an ambitious series of four seasonal novels, partly inspired by Brexit. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker four times but has never won it. Hamid’s Exit West, about migration and mutation, is a magical vision of the refugee crisis, and Auster’s 4 3 2 1, his first novel in seven years, is an “epic” story of birth right and possibility based on the story of character Archibald Isaac Ferguson.
The shortlist is evenly split between the sexes with three men and three women in the running while two authors are British, one is British-Pakistani and three are American writers.
Penguin Random House imprint Hamish Hamilton has two titles in the running, while Hachette imprints Weidenfeld & Nicolson and JM Originals have one each. Two titles have made the cut from independent publishers Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury.
Those who didn’t make it through from the longlist are Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry, Colson Whitehead, Kamila Shamsie, Mike McCormack and Jon McGregor.
Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White praised the shortlist and said it was “great” to see three debuts in the running. However, he said US author Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a “shocking” omission from the final contenders.
“We’re all used by now to the Booker judges delivering surprises but the omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed,” he said. “I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away.
“That said, I don’t begrudge a single one of the final contenders their place. For the lifeblood of literature and the book industry more generally, it’s great to see three debut novelists (well, two plus George Saunders) make it.”
Taking an early punt on the winning title, White said he thought Lincoln in the Bardo was “in with a good shout” but added he was “going to stick my neck out and say that Exit West a brave, beautiful and inventive book for our times - will emerge victorious.”
“I hope that doesn’t jinx its chances,” he added.
Baroness Young, in the role of chair of the judges, was joined on the panel by literary critic, Lila Azam Zanganeh; Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Sarah Hall; artist, Tom Phillips CBE RA; and travel writer, Colin Thubron CBE.
They said the titles “each in its own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions - about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death”.
Young added that the six books “push against the borders of convention”. “Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary,” she said. “The emotional, cultural, political and intellectual range of these books is remarkable, and the ways in which they challenge our thinking is a testament to the power of literature.”
In response to concerns around the prize’s “Americanisation” - after half the authors on this year’s shortlist hail from the US - Young said: “All we can say is we judge the books that are submitted to us; we make our judgement based not on anyone’s nationality or gender or anything else, other than what is written on those pages.” She added: “One can say that time will tell.”
The six finalists for the £50,000 prize were revealed on Wednesday (13th September) at a morning press conference at Man Group, the headquarters of the prize sponsors, in London.
The shortlist was selected from a longlist of 13 novels, known as the Man Booker Dozen.
Each of the shortlisted authors will receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book. A Man Booker shortlist party is due to take place on Wednesday evening (13th September) at the Serpentine Pavilion, Kensington Gardens.
The 2017 winner will be announced on 17th October in London’s Guildhall at a black-tie dinner, with the ceremony to be broadcast by the BBC.
Last year the coveted prize was taken by Paul Beatty, giving independent publisher Oneworld its second consecutive win after Marlon James scooped the award in 2015. Beatty was also the first American author to win the prize. Prior to 2014 only citizens of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe were eligible for the prize.
The six books shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize