Fears of Americans authors “flooding” the Man Booker Prize in the first year they were eligible proved unfounded as British novelists, led by Independent columnist Howard Jacobson, dominated the shortlist.
The judges, meanwhile, have hailed 2014’s crop of nominees as marking a “resurgence” for the contemporary novel.
AC Grayling, chair of the judges, today announced the first Booker shortlist since the £50,000 prize was opened to all authors writing in English regardless of nationality. It comprised two Americans alongside an Australian and three British writers, who were immediately backed by the bookies.
Jacobson, who won the award in 2010 for The Finkler Question, was installed as joint favourite by William Hill at 3/1 for his dystopian novel J alongside Scottish author Ali Smith, for How to be Both.
Fellow Briton Neel Mukherjee was made third favourite for his novel The Lives of Others, about a family in Calcutta set against a period of political turmoil.
Judge Alastair Niven said that though British novelists had been defensive about the rule changes to the prize, “we were not flooded with quality of American writing to the detriment of anything else”.
The first American novelists to make the Booker shortlist were Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Karen Joy Fowler for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Dr Niven continued: “There are two American novels which were astoundingly good. Any idea that American literature would threaten British or Commonwealth and Irish has simply not come about. That must reflect well on the decision the Booker Prize people made a year ago.”
The shortlist was rounded out by Australian Richard Flanagan for his novel set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Jonathan Ruppin, web editor for Foyles bookshop, said: “I think a winner from the US is a very remote possibility: even those fearing an American invasion will be surprised by which two have made it this far. I’m tipping Richard Flanagan as a narrow favourite over Ali Smith.”
Among the factors that tied the shortlist novels together, according to one judge was “the very adventurous use of storytelling” while another said common themes included: “Art, war and the internet.”
Judge Sarah Churchwell said after years of strong performance by historical novels, this year the shortlist was dominated by books about the 20th and 21st centuries. “Fiction about the contemporary moment, about the recent past, is perhaps making a resurgence,” she said.
“These novels are very engaged with the contemporary world. It has been my feeling as a reader and critic for some time that novels trying to engage with the contemporary world were failing to deal well with things like social media.” With Ferris’ book she said: “I thought: ‘At last this is the book I’ve been waiting for’. It talks about what it is to be alive today.”
Who will win? William Hill's odds
- 3/1 Howard Jacobson (British) – J
- 3/1 Ali Smith (British) – How to be Both
- 4/1 Neel Mukherjee (British) – The Lives of Others
- 5/1 Joshua Ferris (US) – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
- 5/1 Karen Joy Fowler (US) – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
- 6/1 Richard Flanagan (Australian) – The Narrow Road to the Deep North