Big names make way for debut writers in fight for Booker glory
Pulitzer Prize winner misses out as shortlist raises critics’ eyebrows
American heavyweights Paul Auster and George Saunders are to go head to head for this year’s Man Booker prize, as major names make way for two new faces on the 2017 shortlist.
The judges, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, announced their shortlist of six titles yesterday morning. Alongside Auster and Saunders, the 29-year-old British debut novelist Fiona Mozley has secured a place in the final line-up, as did American first-timer Emily Fridlund.
Mozley began writing Elmet, set in the copses of Yorkshire, on a mobile phone while she was sitting on a train to London from York.
The two debut novelists are up against two previously shortlisted authors: Scottish author Ali Smith, who is in contention for a fourth time with her post-Brexit novel Autumn, and UK/ Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, in which refugees can use strange black doors to escape to other parts of the world. Hamid was previously shortlisted for his 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
But a host of award-winning writers failed to make the cut, with former Booker winner Arundhati Roy missing out on a place, as well as Sebastian Barry, Kamila Shamsie and Mike McCormack. British authors Zadie Smith and Jon McGregor also lost out.
American author Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was another high-profile casualty. It was the bookies’ favourite, and had already won prestigious literary gongs, including the 2017 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for fiction.
Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White was among those shocked by its absence. “The omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed. I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away,” he said.
Instead, judges selected short-story writer Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which follows US president Abraham Lincoln as he visits the grave of his son Willie, and Auster’s 4321, a novel that judges called “magisterial”, about a boy whose life takes four simultaneous fictional paths.
Mozley was picked for her first novel, the story of a man and his children who retreat to live in a copse in Yorkshire’s West Riding, Elmet. The list’s other debut novel, Fridlund’s History of Wolves, focuses on an isolated 14-yearold as she grows up in a failing cult in the US’s midwest.
Young described the shortlisted titles as “unique and intrepid books that push against the borders of convention”. “Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary. The ways in which they challenge our thinking is a testament to the power of literature,” she said.
But with half of the authors from the US, judges were questioned at a press conference about the “Americanisation” of the UK literary award. The £50,000 prize was opened up to US writers three years ago, and was won last year by American Paul Beatty for The Sellout.
Ladbrokes immediately named Saunders the favourite to win the prize at 2/1. Hamid and Mozley came in second, at 4/1, while Auster was given odds of 5/1, and Fridlund and Smith both at 6/1.
Young was clear that “nationality is not an issue”. “All we can say is that we make our judgment not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages,” she said.
Her fellow judge, the literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh, added that less than 30% of the books submitted for the prize were by US writers, a drop on the previous year. “I feel we are transcultural, increasingly,” she said.
The novelist Sarah Hall, who was also on the judging panel, said that each of the shortlisted titles shared an element of “liminal spaces, whether that’s moving doors, or taking down the walls of consciousness, or life”.
“Going from the longlist to the shortlist was tough,” said judge and travel writer Colin Thubron. “We had give and take. But in general there is no book on the shortlist I feel shouldn’t be there.”
The panel, completed with the artist Tom Phillips, took six hours to narrow the field, in what was a “pretty robust discussion” according to Young. The winner will be announced in a ceremony on 17 October.
The shortlist Ali Smith, below left, makes the list for the fourth time with Autumn. Clockwise from main, debut novelists Fiona Mozley (Elmet) and Emily Fidlund (History of Wolves); Paul Auster (4321); George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) and Moshin Hamid (Exit West)