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Brits on the edge

Brits on the edge

One of the common reactions to the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist is a palpable sense of relief that it is not dominated by US authors, as was initially feared when the prize announced that it was opening up to all writers globally who wrote in English. The cultural cringe has proved to be noticeably absent with only two US novelists – Karen Joy Fowler and Joshua Ferris – on the list. Several commentators have pointed out that contrary to common perceptions some of the most cutting-edge writing around is being penned by Brits. For example, Gaby Wood, a Man Booker judge in 2011, noted that with the likes of Ali Smith on this year's shortlist and Will Self on last year's native writers are playing with the form of the novel in unexpected ways: “If you are not asking what a novel is, or what it could be, then you should not be writing a novel”, she comments. “But if you are, there’s no reason why being British will prevent you from being the best novelist in the world.”

Ali Smith with How to Be Both is a timely inclusion on the shortlist, and not just because of the quality of the book. Smith is Inverness born but Cambridge domiciled. In terms of the list's ecumenical make up she is British but, come the Scottish independence vote on September 18th, she may find herself designated as Scottish. She would then enter the Man Booker annals as the only writer in the prize's history to be nominated as a citizen of one country and emerge as the citizen of another.

A piece in the Guardian took a look at the number of other firsts represented by the shortlist. As well as the obvious ones such as the possibility of a first American winner there were several more recherché ones. Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North or Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (also the first contender to risk starting with an infinitive) would be the longest-ever winning title; Howard Jacobson's J would have the shortest winning title ever (John Berger's 1972 winner G. has a dot); while Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others would be the first winner to borrow its title from a film. The Man Booker shortlist really is the gift that keeps on giving.

When asked recently the standard question posed to most writers, “How do you dream up your characters?” one of the shortlistees, Karen Joy Fowler, gave a wonderfully refreshing reply: “I hear so many writers say – and these are writers that I trust completely – ‘I just started hearing a voice’, or ‘the characters came to life’. I am filled with loathing for my own characters when I hear that because they do nothing of the sort. Left to their own devices they do nothing but drink coffee and complain about their lives.”

Although David Nicholls's longlisted Us failed to make the shortlist, consolation is at hand. His previous novel, One Day, has sold a daunting five million copies so it is perhaps unsurprising that Us is at the centre of what is inevitably termed a “massive Hollywood bidding war”. The novel is not published until September 30th but, apparently, Gladiator himself –Russell Crowe – is one of the Tinseltown bigwigs keen to win the film rights for the book. An “industry source” (him again) said that a film is inevitable, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.” The interest should help Nicholls cope with the disappointment of missing out on further Man Booker glory.