Bets on the Man Booker

Will a U.S. writer clinch top British literary prize again?

The six fictions—which include a love story between two refugees, an exploration of time in a post-Brexit U.K., and a four-person narrative coming-of-age tome—that made it through to the final round of Britain’s most prestigious literary prize are: “4 3 2 1” by Paul Auster, “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund, “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid, “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley, “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, and “Autumn” by Ali Smith. The Chair of the judges, Baroness Lola Young, introduces the list on the Man Booker Prize’s website as “Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary... the ways in which they challenge our thinking is a testament to the power of literature.” Paul Beatty’s win for “The Sellout” in 2016, the first time an American won the prize, raises the question of whether the inclusion of talent from across the pond is resulting in the Americanization of the award.

No stranger to surprise selections, the Man Booker Prize judges of 2017 have omitted Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award winner, and bookmaker’s favorite “The Underground Railroad” by U.S. writer Colson Whitehead from their shortlist, leaving fellow Americans George Saunders, Paul Auster and Emily Fridlund in contention for the £50,000 award. Whitehead lost out to debut novelists like Cornell professor Emily Fridlund. She is in the running with the anguished bildungsroman “History of Wolves,” about a 14-year-old from a crumbling religious cult struggling to transition to life in the ordinary world. The likeliest winner, George Saunders, is also making his debut as a novelist, although he has already received much acclaim for his short stories, one of which landed him the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013. His highlighted work of this year, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” constructs a narrative around Abraham Lincoln’s grief for his deceased son, a grief so powerful that it confines the spirit of the boy to liminal purgatory or “bardo.”

Completing the U.S. contingent of nominees is Paul Auster with “4 3 2 1,” a near-900-page experimental novel that narrates the life of a boy named Archibald Isaac Ferguson. With British bookmaker Ladbrokes, a British-based gambling and betting company, favouring the better-known Auster over Fridlund, the former still stands an outside chance of winning with odds of 5 to 1. While the more seasoned novelists tend to have better odds, bets must be placed cautiously, for eminent writers such as Zadie Smith, previous Booker winner Arundhati Roy, and Jon McGregor did not make it to the shortlist.

Young responded to discussion of writers’ nationalities with the statement, as quoted in The Guardian, that “nationality is not an issue in terms of how we decide on a winner—it’s what is in our opinion the best book in these six.” Commentators have nevertheless paid increasing attention to the issue following a rule change in 2014 that permitted a writer from any country to be nominated so long as their work was published in the U.K. and widely available in English. Previously the award had been restricted to authors from the U.K., the Republic of Ireland, and the Commonwealth.

The award may still highlight U.K. talent anyway. British author and fellow debut novelist Fiona Mozley is both seen as a surprise and in good standing to win with her gothic noir, “Elmet”, set in the rolling hills of Yorkshire. Hailed as a “scarred, black gem” by Guardian reviewer Mark Blacklock, the “lyricism” could win it for the novel. Meanwhile, Ali Smith, a Scottish author who made the final cut, is less highly favoured with her post-Brexit fiction, “Autumn.” Perhaps the more universally relevant theme of displacement accounts for Pakistani-English writer Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” much better odds. His creation is set in a nameless city filled with refugees who can slip through time and space in a genre-transcending work.

Overall, it would seem to be between Saunders and Mohsin, or so former Man Booker judge and literary critic Alex Clark suggests in The Guardian, who also warns of the historically unpredictable nature of the Prize. What is assured, however, is that the winner can expect, aside from £50,000, a sizeable boost to their literary reputation and a hike in sales. Their name will be added to a list of many esteemed writers that date back to the Prize’s inception in 1969, including J.M.Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie, to list a few of the literary giants awarded the prize. With £2,500 and the more weighty, intangible value of recognition already in the shortlisted writers’ pockets, they—and we—will have to wait until October 17th to learn who the final winner is. With such high-calibre and bold writing forced off the shortlist speaking to the judges’ high standards, it is clear that no matter who wins, all nominated works make for rewarding reads. No doubt clamor will resound for the official winner, but that may be all the more reason for readers worldwide to wrestle with the question of what the paragon of fiction writing is today. The Man Booker Prize is soon to make its final selection, but which book triumphs for you?

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