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The 2014 longlist... a reflection

The 2014 longlist... a reflection

The Man Booker Prize longlist has now been published and the “American question” that has been left hanging since the announcement that this year the prize would be open to American novelists for the first time can now be answered. The fears of those who foretold a transatlantic deluge have not materialised: of the 154 books submitted some 40 were by Americans – a sizeable wave to be sure but nothing to swamp British and Commonwealth authors. Roughly the same proportion appears in the longlist with four of the 13 writers being American (or four and a half if you count the Irish-American Joseph O'Neill – both countries will want to claim him as one of their own). The strongest representation is Britain (with six authors, including the Indian-born Neel Mukherjee), with one each for Australia and Ireland.

There was also a fear that unknown writers and small presses would not get a look in but, although this is a noticeably solid list full of well-known authors and established publishing houses, there is room for the debut novelist Paul Kingsnorth and the crowdfunded Unbound publishers too. Kingsnorth's The Wake is up against some terrifyingly stiff competition, including the 2010 Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson and shortlistees Ali Smith (2001 and 2005) and David Mitchell (2001 and 2004). The likes of Richard Flanagan and Richard Powers have sat at the top of Australian and American fiction respectively for some years. Joseph O'Neill and David Nicholls meanwhile have had huge commercial and critical success with Netherland and One Day. Niall Williams may be a less recognisable name to many readers but he has published no fewer than nine novels. Whichever way you look at the list it is dauntingly strong.

What the rule change has done nothing to dilute is the longlist's traditional diversity. There is Kingsnorth's account of life in England immediately following 1066, told in an invented language part way between Middle English and modern, and also Howard Jacobson's futuristic love story J. There is David Mitchell's metaphysical thriller The Bone Clocks and Siri Hustvedt's take on misogyny in the New York art world The Blazing World. And so on . . . The stories the 13 novels tell and the ways they go about telling them have little in common. The Man Booker remains the broadest of broad churches.

The longlist is surprising too. We have become used to the inclusion of unfamiliar names but it is the exclusion of familiar ones that perhaps raises eyebrows the highest. Pundits had suggested, for example, that both Ian McEwan and Donna Tartt would feature but, fine novels though The Children Act and The Goldfinch are, they have been edged out. And they are not the only fancied writers to find themselves in that position. If there is though something that links those who did make the cut it is that by and large they are established and experienced writers. Joshua Ferris at 39 is the baby, the only one of them yet to turn 40. These then are writers who know what they are doing. The difficulty for the reader is which of their books to pick up first.