The literary Olympics: Brought to book

The judges of the Man Booker now know the 17 novels they have to choose from after the prize's long-list was announced yesterday. But, if previous years are anything to go by, the selection process will contain as much drama and intrigue as the books themselves. By Boyd Tonkin

This year, I think I may have a right, at least in the case of the panel's chair for 2005, Professor John Sutherland. In 1999, I served as a Booker judge with Professor Sutherland, under the chairmanship of Gerald Kaufman. Not only did Professor Sutherland leak to the press; many Booker jurors do. No: his published account of what we said deviated so far and so brazenly from what happened that two other judges, Shena Mackay and Natasha Walter, felt obliged to write that he had "not only breached the trust of his fellow judges" but strayed "into pure fantasy".

The professor's distorted leaks attributed to us views we never held. He unpleasantly hinted that some judges felt uneasy about the " anti-Zionist sentiments" of Ahdaf Soueif's short-listed novel The Map of Love, a claim that prompted poisonous racist innuendos against Mr Kaufman in the Arabic media. He falsely wrote that no one really liked that year's outstanding winner, J M Coetzee's Disgrace. And he sneered at the exhausting, life-consuming process by saying Coetzee had won merely "a lottery not a literary competition".

A few years later, the Swedish Academy decided this unloved " lottery-winner" deserved the Nobel Prize. Professor Sutherland's gross misrepresentations stand uncorrected on a newspaper website.

So what does the Man Booker management committee, led by the veteran administrator Martyn Goff, do? Not only does it reappoint Professor Sutherland as a judge after an unprecedentedly short time. It upgrades him to chairman. Neither did it offer a word of explanation to the majority of judges who found his actions bizarre, to say the least.

This told me an eccentrically (perhaps shambolically) run award had raced so far down the road of seeking gossip, scandal and controversy that it wanted, above all, to reward judges who caused a stir. That would be terrible news for the long-term reputation of the prize.

Yet if the Establishment cabal behind the Man Booker sought a literary rerun of Reservoir Dogs by promoting Professor Sutherland, the opposite has happened. This selection reads more like an invitation to an upmarket vicarage tea-party than to a showdown in a blood-stained warehouse. It has to be said that the overwhelming feature of the 2005 long-list is just how orthodox, inoffensive, and non-contentious it looks. This is a bien pensant list for, and from, bien pensant readers. It will ruffle few feathers and frighten few horses. Yet it does embrace a dozen outstandingly good books.

Yesterday, Professor Sutherland said this year's long-list "may rank as one of the strongest since the prize was founded in 1969". And, just this once, I believe him. Powerful performances from the aristocracy of modern fiction - Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie (who was awarded the " Booker of Bookers" in 1993 for Midnight's Children), Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes and that jammy " lottery-winner", J M Coetzee - have found due recognition.

Some of the strongest voices in a younger, chasing pack - Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, James Meek - remain in the frame. A trio of resourceful debutants - Tash Aw, Harry Thompson, Marina Lewycka - justify their place in the August sun. The judges have deferred any choice between the biggest beasts - McEwan (the early favourite), Rushdie, Barnes, Ishiguro and Coetzee - until the shortlist stage. That rather feels like a cop-out, or else a row adjourned.

Elsewhere, they have applauded full-dress historical seriousness (from Tash Aw, James Meek, Harry Thompson and Sebastian Barry), modest avant-garde experiment (Ali Smith) or high-bohemian intrigue (Rachel Cusk). The flavour as a whole is well-bred, well-read and urbanely well-controlled.

The judges, who also include the book-dealer Rick Gekoski, the novelist Josephine Hart and the literary editors Lindsay Duguid and David Sexton, have shunned tricks, whims and gambles. Even the left-field comic relief (Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) comes with an Orange Prize-shortlist seal of appoval already attached. If the presence of Professor Sutherland was meant in some way to guarantee fireworks, then the plan has misfired. If this list errs, it errs on the side of safety.

A less risk-averse panel might have chosen more adventurously. It might have plumped for Rupert Thomson's timely and hypnotic fable of a tribal Britain split into sparring subcultures, Divided Kingdom; for Maggie Gee's tragi-comedy of low and high life in contemporary London, My Cleaner; for Rebbecca Ray's enormous, extraordinary Welsh saga, Newfoundland; for Diana Evans's mysterious and moving tale of suburban twins, 26A; for Abdulrazak Gurnah's lyrical journey through the east African colonial past, Desertion; or for Russell Celyn Jones's Thames-side blending of thriller and tragedy, Ten Seconds from the Sun. That's one alternative shortlist.

You might, by this stage, be wondering where the traditional Booker outrage and upset will come from this year. In that case, just hope that both Ian McEwan and John Banville reach the shortlist.

A couple of months ago, Banville (in the New York Review of Books) gave McEwan one of the most savagely dismissive reviews delivered in recent years by one leading novelist writing about another. He called McEwan's Saturday (nonsensically, to my mind) "dismayingly bad" and "a self-satisfied and, in many ways, ridiculous novel". Perhaps, if both do make the cut, the fireworks have merely been postponed.

The Man Booker Prize long-list

'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)

In his first novel, Aw weaves the story of Johnny Lim, a cloth merchant, criminal and clandestine Communist in 1940s Malaysia, who rose by nefarious means from obscure peasant origins to become the richest man in the valley. The narrative is conveyed by the voices of Lim's family and friends.

'The Sea' by John Banville (Picador)

Max Morden, an ageing alcoholic, returns to the Irish resort where he spent a memorable childhood holiday 50 years before. Recently bereaved by the loss of his wife, Anna, Morden immerses himself in the memory of the earlier visit to Ballyless as an 11-year-old, when he fell in love with an entire family.

'Arthur & George' by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)

Barnes brings to life the case of George Edali, sentenced to seven years' hard labour as the convicted sender of hate mail to his Indian father and Scottish mother. His cause is taken up by the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who attempts to clear his name while suffering his own emotional turmoil.

'A Long, Long Way' by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)

It is 1916 and Willie Dunne is a volunteer with the Dublin Fusiliers enduring the brutality of the battlefield in Flanders. On leave in Dublin, he faces the Easter Rising. The son of a Catholic policeman and loyalist, Dunne and fellow Irish soldiers are seen as traitors by nationalists and distrusted by the English.

'Slow Man' by J M Coetzee (Secker & Warburg)

Coetzee has already won the Booker Prize twice, in 1983 and 1999, as well as being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. In Slow Man, Paul Rayment has his leg amputated after an accident. He hires a nurse, Marijana, and becomes increasingly drawn to her and her handsome teenage son.

'In the Fold' by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)

In her fifth novel, the award-winning Cusk, named one of Granta's Best of Young British novelists in 2003, deals with marriage, friendship, family and morality. Michael is married to Rebecca, but their partnership is threatened by her self-doubt. He has to look back at his youthful judgements.

'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)

The children of Hailsham have no parents and are destined to have no children of their own. The sinister truth is that they have been bred as "donors", eventually to surrender their vital organs. The story is narrated by one of the pupils, Kathy, who has become a carer, who spends her time between "recovery centres", where she helps donors not to die, but to "complete".

'All For Love' by Dan Jacobson (Hamish Hamilton)

Based on the real story of Louise, younger daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium, Jacobson's novel recreates an elopement that scandalised Viennese society at the end of the 19th century. Married to a Hapsburg prince, Princess Louise had an affair with a soldier who claimed to be a Croatian count, Lieutenant Mattachich. They ended up in prison and a madhouse.

'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' by Marina Lewycka (Viking)

Sisters Nadezhda and Vera were brought up in England by their Ukrainian refugee parents, but have not spoken to one another for years. They are reconciled after their mother's death when their father, who is working on a grand history of the tractor, becomes romantically entangled with a pneumatic young blonde woman, who is clearly after his wealth.

'Beyond Black' by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

Mantel's tenth novel revolves around Alison Hart, a medium from Slough, who tours with her assistant Colette, showcasing her psychic powers to mainly female audiences. Partly inspired by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the book takes a wry look at Britain in the 21st century, where the inhabitants of housing estates worry about immigration and Gypsies.

'Saturday' by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)

McEwan's novel is set on 15 February 2003, the day Britain took to the streets of the capital in protest against the impending war in Iraq. But the action is away from the march when neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is in a minor car crash. His encounter with the other driver, Baxter, whom he diagnoses as having Hunting-ton's disease, has fateful consequences.

'The People's Act of Love' by James Meek (Canongate)

Siberia 1919, and the Czech Legion, which fought for the beaten Whites against the Red Army, are stranded in a small village made stranger by the practice of shamanism and a Christian sect led by the enigmatic Balashov. Into this setting Meek brings escaped criminal Samarin and war widow, Anna Petrovna.

'Shalimar the Clown' by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

The book opens in LA in 1991, when Maximilian Ophuls, former US ambassador to India, is killed at his illegitimate daughter's house by his Kashmiri Muslim driver, who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. What appears to be a political assassination is revealed to be a passionately personal murder.

'The Accidental' by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

Smith's first full-length novel, is drawn from Pier Pasolini's film Theorem, starring a youthful Terence Stamp. In the film, the beautiful young man entrances a bourgeois family. In the novel, a young woman, Amber, brings turmoil into the family home of an English literature lecturer.

'On Beauty' by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

In her third novel, the author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man tells the story of two academic families, the Belseys and the Kipps, who are brought together despite their differences. Smith's social comedy deals with themes of love, sex, race, class and belief systems.

'This Thing of Darkness' by Harry Thompson (Headline)

In his epic novel, Thompson tells the story of the voyages of the Beagle, its captain Robert Fitzroy and most famous passenger, Charles Darwin. Fitzroy was a devout Christian searching for geological evidence to back up the Old Testament. Darwin, though a minor cleric at the time, had other ideas.

'This is the Country' by William Wall (Hodder & Stoughton)

An Irish teenager is heading for trouble, dabbling with drugs and the criminal underworld. His life is changed when he falls for Pat Baker's sister. When she becomes pregnant, Pat breaks his legs. Set against the backdrop of a gritty, modern Ireland, it is a darkly comic tale of survival against the odds.

Past Man Booker Prize Winners

2004 Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

2003 DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little

2002 Yann Martel, Life of Pi

2001 Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang

2000 Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

1999 J M Coetzee, Disgrace

1998 Ian McEwan, pictured right, Amsterdam

1997 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

1996 Graham Swift, Last Orders

1995 Pat Barker, The Ghost Road

1994 James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late

1993 Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

1992 Joint Winners, Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger

1991 Ben Okri, The Famished Road

1990 A S Byatt, Possession

1989 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

1988 Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

1987 Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

1986 Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils

1985 Keri Hulme, The Bone People

1984 Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac

1983 J M Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K

1982 Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark

1981 Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

1980 William Golding, Rites of Passage

1979 Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

1978 Iris Murdoch, The Sea

1977 Paul Scott, Staying On

1976 David Storey, Saville

1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust

1974 Joint Winners, Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist, Stanley Middleton, Holiday

1973 J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

1972 John Berger, G

1971 V S Naipaul, In a Free State

1970 Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member

1969 P H Newby, Something to Answer For

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