Examining the books behind the 2012 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

11 September 2012

With the shortlist announcement the Man Booker Prize becomes, temporarily, a numbers game. Initially it is about threes: there are three women and three men on the list; three big publishers compete with three small ones; three of the novels have a historical setting. Then it is about twos: two debut novelists are shortlisted; one former winner plays off against one debut novelist; another writer wins their second nomination; two of the shortlistees are non British.

Such symmetries may sometimes make it seem as though the judges must have settled down with a tick-list of men-from-the-ministry requirements and tweaked their choices to make sure the list is suitably inclusive and representative. They won't have though. At this point the judges will have read all of the longlisted books at least twice if not more and only on looking at the pile of six winnowed titles sitting on the judging room table will the patterns have begun to emerge. No book will have been included to beef up the gender or ethnicity balance, none because they might prove popular with booksellers, none simply to support small independent publishers. The six shortlisted books are simply the judges' communal favourites. All the rest is, this year, a happy accident.

There is another statistic at play too, but one that will forever remain hidden: which books each individual judge was forced to jettison and whose rejection gives them a pang. All the judges will have had one of these, an “almost” book for which they have a sentimental attachment and hold dear like a favoured literary godchild.

The sweep of the shortlist highlights the fact that each of the books comes with its own distinctive flavour, a savour that will have featured in the no doubt lengthy deliberations. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, for example, is not just a sequel but should it win she would join the select duo of J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey as double Man Booker winners. The book though will have earned its place on the shortlist by virtue of its merits as a stand-alone title which can be read by someone who hasn't opened Wolf Hall. Meanwhile the fact that Swimming Home is Deborah Levy's first novel for 15 years will have had the judges asking why, when a writer is this accomplished, has the gap between books been so long?

Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, with its evocation of the Malayan Emergency, will have taken the judges out of the realms of the familiar and into a distant land and unfamiliar scenario. Alison Moore's debut The Lighthouse will have reminded them of the shock and pleasure that comes when a fully-fledged work of fiction arrives unexpectedly from a new author. The same is true of Jeet Thayil's first novel Narcopolis which is also proof that in the right hands places can be as rich a character as any of the people that appear in fiction. Will Self's Umbrella on the other hand is evidence that despite its shrinking profile experimental fiction is still being written and that the search for new solutions to the old problems of literary form are still being sought. It is these sorts of discoveries that make the shortlist so interesting and the selection process so gratifying.

Now that the judges have made their statement it is the wider world's chance to comment. And it will. As they deliberated in a quiet room with a pile of books in front of them they may not have realised the full implications of their discussions. The Man Booker, however, rattles cages like no other literary prize and Peter Stothard and his colleagues are about to find themselves on the receiving end of a remorseless salvo of both accolades and brickbats that will rain in from all parts of the globe. Even for the wisest and most phlegmatic of personalities it can come as a surprise.

It soon comes back to numbers though: this is always a sunlit moment in the prize when six very happy novelists (and an equally delighted cohort of editors and publishers) can enjoy their moment in the sun and five judges can breathe out briefly in relief at having drawn up a shortlist. Those judges though will also soon start to experience a distant, nagging anxiety that will, with every passing week become more insistent: there is of course only one number that counts – only one book can win. They will now have to steel themselves for a form of infanticide and kill off five of their adopted children. It is not for the faint hearted.
 

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