Boyd Tonkin: Revolution postponed as big publishers dominate

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The Independent Online

Every August, in the cultural equivalent of the Glorious Twelfth, the Man Booker judges perpetrate an annual cull of prize authors to deliver a long list light on stars and heavy on surprises. This year, the absence of so many favourites – from Jonathan Coe to Michael Ondaatje, Pat Barker to Rose Tremain – led commentators to hint, or hope, that something more epoch-making was in hand. They detected a deeper change in the weather that would at last send the conglomerate houses, and their bankable stalwarts, into the literary shade.

With the 2007 shortlist in, has that Booker revolution happened? Only up to a point. Every title in the final six comes from a leading corporate publisher. Myrmidon and Tindal Street Press, the much-fancied indie patrons of the longlisted candidates Tan Twang Eng and Catherine O'Flynn, did not make the cut. Ian McEwan, with his pitch-perfect tragi-comedy On Chesil Beach, quickly took up position as firm favourite, and remains a hot tip. But literary punters have been inspecting with approval Nicola Barker's Darkmans: her raucous, sprawling carnival of a novel, as unruly and mysterious as the Kentish badlands it depicts.

Elsewhere, the shortlist stretches as far around the English-speaking world as ever. So we explore public and private turmoil in Papua New Guinea with Lloyd Jones, Pakistan and New York with Mohsin Hamid, central India with Indra Sinha, Dublin with Ann Enright: an admirable sweep, but they add up to something like the Man Booker mixture as before.

For my money, the explosive joker in this pack is Sinha's Animal's People: a fictional monologue inspired by the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984, and hitched via his website (www.indrasinha.com) to the movement to secure justice for its victims. Bitter wit and searing compassion ensure this story's independence as fiction, yet its many online outriders bind it closely to a planet-spanning web campaign of rescue and reform. As a project, this feels as new as the Daily Kos political blog – and as old as Dickens.

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