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Haven’t you got homes to go to?

Haven’t you got homes to go to?

At the party to announce the 2016 Man Booker shortlist the prize’s director, Gaby Wood, made a couple of startling admissions. The meeting to whittle down the longlist of 13 to the anointed six started at 10 am and ran, she said, until past seven in the evening. The authors who didn’t make the cut might not feel entirely gruntled but they won’t be able to claim that the merits of their books weren’t fully discussed: Wood says she took 7,000-8,000 words of notes of the wrangling before her wrist gave up the ghost. Nevertheless, she also pointed out ‘that even in an Olympics year, watching the judges in action has been a magnificent spectator sport’. Be that as it may, nine hours for the judges to reach agreement is pushing things a bit – popes have been elected in less. If there were such a thing as a Man Booker Judges’ Union the officers would be calling management’s attention to a working-time directive.

Wood also let slip that things became so impassioned that not one but two of the judges threatened to jump out of the window if certain books didn’t make the cut. Since all the judges were present and correct at the party it seems each got their way. Or perhaps the meeting took place on the ground floor.

In summing up the nature of the shortlist that eventually emerged Wood noted that ‘It is not the specific remit of the Man Booker to discover new talent but it is always a pleasure when it does.’ The chair of judges, Amanda Foreman, later echoed the sentiment and pointed out that the epic feat of reading she and her peers had embarked on had shown one thing above all: ‘Modern literary fiction refuses to stand still.’

Foreman characterised the shortlist as a statement of the judges’ ‘commitment to quality over noise’. Not, she admitted, that this commitment always extended to her own note taking. Her handwriting was, she confessed, a cause for worry. She was startled when, looking back at her notes, she read that one judge had described a book as ‘toxic’ – a bit harsh, she thought, until she realised what was actually said was the book was a ‘tonic’. Ditto when another novel was described as ‘Canadian’. What were the specific characteristics of a Canadian novel she wondered? She didn’t recall any of the books under discussion involving grizzly bears or being narrated by a Mounty with laconic sense of humour. The word, it emerged was not ‘Canadian’ but ‘Conradian’. Luckily there’s time to find a stenographer or at least a dictaphone for the final meeting.

The inclusion of a crime novel on the list, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, has caused much comment since the Man Booker and crime are not supposed to mix (though there is no reason they shouldn’t). Burnet, who thinks that his is a novel about crime rather than a crime novel, was justifiably thrilled with his shortlisting: ‘When you see Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are tweeting their congratulations, you begin to feel it is quite a big deal,’ he said. His delight was also a result of having geared himself up for failure: ‘There is a certain Scottish way of preparing yourself for disappointment in advance, a coping strategy born out of many years of watching our football team.’ How he handles success leaves in him uncharted waters since it is not something the Scottish football team have much experience of.

Comment was made too of the presence of three small independent publishers on the list. Burnet’s book is published by Contraband, then there’s Oneworld (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) and Granta for Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Amanda Foreman commented on how the judges ‘were excited by the willingness of so many authors to take risks with language and form’ but publishers need to take risks too to bring those innovative novels to public attention.

Notice was also taken of the relative brevity of this year’s shortlisted books and the omission of any breeze-block sized volumes. A thorny subject this since some long books, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker winner Wolf Hall, for example, make the case for why long books can be good while others, anything by David Foster Wallace say, highlight the need for a good editor. For those who judge a book by its length, this year’s shortlistees come in at a trim and low calorie average of 336 pages.