Big names make way for de­but writ­ers in fight for Booker glory

Pulitzer Prize win­ner misses out as short­list raises crit­ics’ eye­brows

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Ali­son Flood

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)

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