Surprised by the Booker shortlist? Don't judge the books, study the judges

As a former judge, I sometimes joke that the only year I correctly picked the Man Booker winner was when I was on the panel – it’s too unpredictable

This week the email from the Man Booker’s publicity team arrived, with its announcement of the shortlist: three Americans; two debuts; two formerly shortlisted authors; one winner of a major prize set up in opposition to the Man Booker; and one grand old man. Curious indeed, I thought, and then, as my more reptilian brain kicked in, I started playing the odds. Horse-trading? Who pushed for what? Why were names such as Zadie Smith, Sebastian Barry and Arundhati Roy whittled off the longlist?

As a literary editor for many years, and a former judge, I have sometimes joked with friends that the year that I correctly predicted the Man Booker result was the year I judged it. It is, delightfully, unpredictable. The longlist did seem like a mix-tape of greatest hits (thankfully nobody put on the Rushdie) – and yet the only two surprise tracks are on the shortlist.

With a different set of judges each year, it is a fool’s errand to try to guess the eventual winner. So I have always had a simple formula: never judge the books – study the judges.

In the infamous year of having a former spook looking at literature, the prize nearly collapsed under the banalities, until a tried-and-tested victor was put in place (Julian Barnes, with The Sense of an Ending). This year’s judges are a curious mixture. Having been in this game for so long, I can say without hesitation that I respect the opinions of Sarah Hall and Lila Azam Zanganeh, both of whom I have chaired at literary festivals, and have long admired Colin Thubron and Tom Philips, whose work I used to push on creative writing students. I have not had the pleasure of meeting the chair, Baronness Lola Young. But these are people I take seriously, and their decisions should be taken seriously.

But seriously: Paul Auster? The new book strikes me as bloated Borges. What he managed in “The Garden of Forking Paths” it takes Auster a book longer than Ulysses to play around in. It’s a very macho book, not in content, but in form. After years of slender novels and slim pickings we get the huge work, and it is huge work to finish it.

Another Booker koan: the front-runner never wins. I quite liked George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, but it had a musty air of nostalgic experimentation. Ali Smith (Autumn) appears to be always the bridesmaid, and seems content with that – as she observed, Angela Carter never won the Booker. The debuts, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Elmet by Fiona Mozley, which I read yesterday, are good; at points very good indeed. Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), like Auster, attempts alternative realities but has the upper hand in politics.

If you want to win at the Man Booker – as a punter – then here’s the strategy: find five friends and each of you place a bet on one of the books. One of you will win and you can divide the dividends sixfold. That’s the only way to win.


Stuart Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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