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The Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist

The Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist

The Man Booker shortlist has been announced and it is certain to raise many an eyebrow for two reasons. First, a raft of big names (Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry, Zadie Smith) have not made the cut, while second, the two debut novelists on the longlist, who also happen to be the youngest and least known – Emily Fridlund and Fiona Mozley – both have. These two neophytes line up alongside an eminent cluster of established writers, each of whose books comes with a story of its own.

Mozley's Elmet may be her debut novel but Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is his 20th. The book marks his first time on the shortlist and at 866 pages is double the length of the next longest novel on the list, George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo. And while Saunders is someone with an established and prize-winning reputation as a writer of short stories and novellas, his tale of Abraham Lincoln's grief at the death of his son is his first fully-fledged novel. But then as Thomas Hardy once said, he wouldn't have been able to write his poetry without the knowledge gained by writing his novels first: something similar is going on in reverse with Saunders.

For Ali Smith meanwhile the announcement simply means business as usual; she is a regular Man Booker shortlistee and this is her fourth nomination (she is rapidly closing in on Beryl Bainbridge's legendary five nominations). Autumn is also the first in a projected quartet of novels with seasonal titles – the second of which, Winter, is due out in November. Mohsin Hamid is another writer who has been here before: his The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted in 2007.

What can one glean from a shortlist in which the chosen novels seem to have little in common? Saunders's is a work of historical fiction while Auster's is an epic story of an extended immigrant family; Fridlund's History of Wolves concerns a teenage girl with a tragedy in her past and Mozley's is the tale of a small off-grid family in crisis; Hamid's Exit West mixes the current refugee catastrophe with magical realism while Smith's novel deals with love and hope in the time of Brexit. Whatever the judges are looking for it is clearly not consistency of subject matter, nor can they be accused of favouring one particular genre.

They can't be accused of gender bias either since there are three women and three men on the shortlist – or of national bias since three Americans face off against three Brits (one of whom, Hamid, is an Anglo-Pakistani). Even the publishers show a good spread, with Hamish Hamilton being the only one with two representatives. These are symmetries that emerge only once the list has been chosen. The bookies, however, are not looking too sassy: before the announcement, the top six most fancied authors of the 13 longlisted books were Colson Whitehead, Jon McGregor, George Saunders, Sebastian Barry, Mike McCormack and Kamila Shamsie. Since only Saunders has made it through there will by necessity be a rush to have another, and rather longer, look into the crystal ball.

Who will become the new favourite? All the shortlisted books have had good-to-glowing reviews (though some have been less than reverential) with the critics sharing at least some of the judges' estimation of their quality. But it is the toughest of calls: in previous years, for example, Mozley and Fridlund would have been discounted because of their youth and inexperience but they have made it through, so why shouldn't one of them go all the way? Or Hamid might have raised concerns because of the trickiness of his conceit – doors through which the refugees transport to new locations. But the judges have so far shown themselves to be unconcerned by a book's length, by the contemporary nature of some subject matter, by the celebrity or otherwise of the authors. Theirs is a shortlist that makes it clear they are judging each book on its individual merits. 

This point in the calendar marks a quickening of the cycle: press and reader interest tends to increase in inverse proportion to the number of contenders still left standing; the chosen novelists themselves will find the month until the winner announcement on 17th October frantically busy with new calls on their time while at the same time trying to keep all thoughts of triumphing in the Guildhall at bay, however enticing. Each has time to craft some thank yous on a small slip of paper just in case it is they who is indeed crowned the winner.

If there is anyone who will find the next month more relaxing than previous ones, it is the judges themselves. Not that their work is done but rather that they can take a bit more time over things. They have read each of the shortlisted books a minimum of twice already and now they will have to read them for a third time and ask themselves not which book is a contender to win but which book deserves to win. For all concerned the next four weeks will seem simultaneously a very long and a very short time. Hopefully, for a few days at least, they can all take a couple of moments to reflect – and maybe even congratulate themselves – on what they have achieved so far.