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A reflection on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014

A reflection on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014

Joshua FerrisTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Viking)

Richard FlanaganThe Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)

Karen Joy FowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent's Tail)

Howard JacobsonJ (Jonathan Cape)

Neel MukherjeeThe Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)

Ali SmithHow to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)

The Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist is out. Although it won't have been chosen with this in mind, the list is a thing of perfect balance. As they sat in their last meeting the judges will have been too busy winnowing the longlisted books and arguing the case for dismissal or inclusion to have noticed what was shaping up in front of them. The realisation will have come only when they breathed out after the wrangling and found they had picked a shortlist that contains not just two women and four men but an ecumenical national representation too – three Brits (one Indian-born), two Americans and one Australian. The books' themes show the same even-handedness: there is the future (Howard Jacobson's J) and the past (Richard Flangan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North); the formally traditional (Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others) and the experimental (Ali Smith's How to be Both); the modern technological (Joshua Ferris' To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) and the imaginative twist (Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves). There are even five different imprints represented on the list. The judges, clearly, are natural democrats and meritocrats.

The list offers other nice comparisons too. It contains the oldest writer on the longlist (ungallant to name him I know) in Howard Jacobson at 72 and the youngest, Joshua Ferris at 39. If Jacobson wins he will become only the fourth multiple winner in the Man Booker's history (having previously won in 2010 with The Finkler Question) alongside J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel. Not bad company. If Ali Smith wins it will cap three Man Booker shortlistings. If Ferris or Fowler win they will become the first US novelists to scoop the prize. If Richard Flanagan wins he will be the first Man Booker laureate to have some river rapids named after him – “Flanagan's Surprise” on the Franklin River in Victoria, Australia. If Neel Mukherjee wins he will become the first Anglo-Indian winner since Salman Rushdie in 1981.

What the list also recognises is expertise born of practise. None of the chosen novelists are literary ingénues, all have served their apprenticeships. Jacobson is the author of 13 novels, Fowler of seven, Smith and Flanagan of six, Ferris and Mukherjee of three. That's a cumulative 38 novels before the innumerable short stories, plays and works of non-fiction have even been taken into account. These are all authors who know something about constructing novels. At this stage the judges will have read each of the shortlisted books at least twice and it is a rare book that merits a second reading. Privately the judges will admit that some of the novels in fact improve on a further reading.

It is always tempting to try an extrapolate the taste of the judges from the list they come up with but it is always a foolhardy exercise too. This year's panel has worked through more than 150 novels – in the opinion of the publishers who submit the books, the very best the year has to offer. To winnow that down to six means that matters of quality not fashion or individual taste are paramount. This year an extra judge was brought in bringing the number up to six and increasing impartiality further. The only real lesson that can be drawn about the judges so far is that they put a premium on craft and skill and, above all, that indefinable essence that turns these into art.

They now have a month to re-re-read their shortlisted novels and choose the one book that encapsulates those qualities even more successfully than the others.