Boyd Tonkin: The perfect time for judges to take a literary staycation

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The Independent Online

The Man Booker competition used routinely to trigger snide insiders' comments that went something like this: "There was this Irishman, a Scotsman, two Indians, an Australian and a Canadian. And that's this year's shortlist!" Kneejerk sarcasm aside, the prize had made a permanent mark as the most conspicuous arena in which "English" fiction opened its arms to embrace every – non-United States – variety of the literary language. Already underway when Salman Rushdie won with Midnight's Children in 1981, this branding of the Booker as an annual festival of "global English" or even "post-colonial fiction" gathered pace year by year, right up to Aravind Adiga's success with The White Tiger in 2008.

Now what happens? Just as an economic crisis and the narrowed horizons it compels undermines a boom-time ideal of cosmopolitan British culture, so the Man Booker jury opts for a "staycation" this year. Their shortlist features five English novelists and a single South African. Even J M Coetzee's Summertime, by the way, prods repeatedly at tensions between "English" and Afrikaner culture among Europeans in his native land.

A smaller reach does not mean a weaker field. All these fine books earn their passage. But anyone who suspects that the literary scene always acts as a mirror of its times will ask what this bulk purchase of fictional Englishness might imply. A creative re-evaluation of crucial moments in English history, myth and culture propels four of the books: A S Byatt's panoramic saga of art and love among the bohemians prior to the First World War; Hilary Mantel's re-invigoration of the Tudor revolution of the 1530s and Thomas Cromwell's part in it; Sarah Waters's ingenious variations on the big-house novel and the classic ghost story; and Adam Foulds's plunge into the private and public ordeals of the archetypal Romantic outsider, John Clare.

Next year, normal global Man Booker service may well resume. The deep Englishness favoured this season will probably appear more as a blip than a trend. But, after a summer when so many of us retrenched to holiday around these shores, it turns out that the judges were also beachcombing for treasures close to home.