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2014 Man Booker Prize - shortlist press conference

2014 Man Booker Prize - shortlist press conference

At a press conference to announce the Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist the collected judges gave some insights into the six books they have chosen, about how they came to their decision and about how they perceive the state of contemporary English-language fiction.

Both Ion Trewin, the Literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, and A C Grayling, the chair of judges, were keen to nail any suggestion that the presence of two Americans on the list (Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler) in this, the first year that American novelists have been eligible, was in any way premeditated. ‘The nationality of the authors was irrelevant during the judges’ discussion’, said Trewin. ‘There was no question in our mind of tokenism or any other sort of-ism’, echoed Grayling. Daniel Glaser, another of the judges, put it another way: ‘Our discussions dealt more on where each book was set than where the author was from.’

That established, the judges described what they had found so special about each of the shortlisted books. Grayling described Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others as ‘an epic account of a family in Calcutta . . . it is a rich, sweeping novel.’ Erica Wagner thought Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ‘worth re-reading despite its twist. It is a deeply sophisticated novel – sophisticated about families and about stories.’ Alastair Niven said that Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North told truths about ‘cruelty in the name of a cause’ and that was ‘serendipitous considering the age we live in now’.

Sarah Churchwell praised the way Ali Smith’s How to Be Both ‘resists categories’ but offers ‘the exhilaration of imagination and the consolations of art’. Jonathan Bate said that Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour had made the judges ‘laugh out loud’ but that Ferris’s ‘mordant overbite of wit’ (the book is about a dentist) makes you ‘think as well as laugh’. Afterwards ‘even root canal treatment doesn’t seem so bad’. Daniel Glaser finished the explanations with Howard Jacobson’s J: it stood out for the judges because ‘it says things that are not usually said in polite discourse’.

The judges drew more general points too. The shortlisted books are all largely set in the present or future which, they thought, suggested that the contemporary moment is making a literary resurgence. Far from stifling fiction the internet age is expanding it. The 154 submitted novels told the judges that the fiction of 2014 is, in Grayling’s words, ‘taking ideas from a great range of topics’. Daniel Glaser, a scientist, picked up the point: ‘As readers’, he said, ‘we are expected to enter worlds we don’t know – science is just one of those areas.’

The judges spent exactly three hours and 40 minutes (Ion Trewin had a stopwatch) whittling the longlist of 13 down to a shortlist of six. Then judges were universally sad to see seven books go but the chosen six books, said Erica Wagner, do nothing less than ‘remind us of what fiction can do’. That is no small recommendation and should be good enough for even the most pernickety reader.

Credit: Megan Taylor