Submitted by Alice on Tue, 2016-09-13 13:12
First 155 novels became 13 and now they have shrunk again: the six books that have been named on the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist have, at last, the summit in sight. Sage observers and maybe the writers too will now scrutinise the list for clues as to where the judges will ultimately look for their winner. So what can be gleaned from their chosen six of Paul Beatty (The Sellout), Graeme Macrae Burnet (His Bloody Project), Ottessa Moshfegh (Eileen), Deborah Levy (Hot Milk), David Szalay (All that Man Is) and Madeleine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing)?
It is, at first glance, an extraordinarily balanced list: it comprises three men and three women from three countries, two each from Britain (Burnet and Levy), the US (Moshfegh and Beatty), and Canada (Szalay and Thien . . . though Szalay, having been born in Canada but brought up in England is perhaps more British and Canadian). Even those broad nationalities aren't clearcut: Moshfegh's parentage involves a Croatian mother and Iranian father while Levy was born in South Africa. So no national bias to be found there.
Of the books themselves three are historical (Burnet, Moshfegh and Thien) while the others have contemporary settings. Moshfegh and Levy have female protagonists, Burnet, Beatty and Szalay's are male, while Thien's novel deals with the history of a whole family. So no gender or time-period favouritism either.
The locations share the same balance too: New England and Spain, the Scottish islands and modern Europe, Los Angeles and China. And the experience of the chosen novelists runs from a debutante (Moshfegh – though she has written a novella before) to the vastly experienced and productive Levy (five novels and innumerable plays, short story collections and poems). Even the writers' ages have a well-mixed feel, ranging from Moshfegh at 35 to Levy at 57: these novelists then are neither ingénues nor greybeards but in the prime middle.
And little can be gleaned about the judges’ predilections when it comes to a novel's ideal length. Levy's is the shortest at 218 pages and Thien's the longest at 463 – so no blockbusters and no size 8 novellas either.
What about themes? Beatty has written a dystopian satire about slavery while Szalay examines 21st-century man in all his aspects, good and bad; Levy's tale dissects motherhood and mystery with an unsettling psychological intensity while Burnet lays out the mind of a killer in a courtroom drama; Moshfegh plays with female friendship and yearning while Thien looks at the effect on ordinary people of China's topsy-turvy 20th century. So look into the shortlist and you'll find there love, death, happiness, families, the sweep of history and the minutiae of particularity, the internal life and the external and a host of other themes too.
Lastly, something more concrete for the examiner . . . the shortlist shows a set of judges unswayed by literary celebrity. Only Levy has appeared on the Man Booker shortlist before (in 2012), all the others are newcomers – a demonstration that the books were chosen on their own merit and not on reputation.
This then is a shortlist that offers all sorts of riches but not many clues. One suspects that the judges themselves, after their wrangling was done and they stared at the pile of six books left in front of them, wondered just how they had got there and what their shortlist might say about their tastes and contemporary fiction more generally. Perhaps as the judges now start to read the novels for the last time, in preparation for picking the winner, and the reading public gets to grip with the chosen six, some answers might emerge. I wouldn't bet on it though.