Opinion: The Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist

Opinion: The Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist

Eleanor Catton / Photo: Robert Catto

The award sends the literary world into a frenzy every year – but is this year’s shortlist worth the hype?

It’s a landmark year in Booker history – the first year that US authors can enter, resulting in either a truly international competition or the end of Western civilisation, depending on who you believe. Actually, the new ruling means all English-language writers can enter, but we all know who it is that’s ruffling Establishment feathers.

Let’s face it: there’s something about the Booker Prize that makes even the mildest bookworm go a bit mad. It provokes a level of hysteria and hype even the Oscars can’t match, and the mere presence of someone other than a middle-aged white man on the list is enough to send the literati into paroxysms of lust, as poor Eleanor Catton found out last year. Luckily The Luminaries will last longer than the lecherous coverage, but it was hardly arts journalism’s finest moment. I’m as guilty of bad Booker behaviour as anyone – I once repeated the words ‘Wolf Hall’ three times to an acquaintance who had never heard of it, assuming I simply hadn’t been speaking clearly enough, before storming away in disgust.

In the end, this is a pretty reasonable crop. It’s not the best year – that’s tied between last year and 2009 for me – and it’s not the worst because Julian Barnes’ loathsome, over-lauded Sense of an Ending isn’t on it. There are only two American authors – Joshua Ferris and the wonderful Karen Joy Fowler – in contrast to the Doomsday prophecies. The gender ratio is disappointing, with only Fowler and Ali Smith making the cut, but overall it’s a solid list. My money is on Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a dark horse, although Smith’s How to Be Both and Neel Mukherjee’s delicious The Lives of Others are equally deserving.

Despite my best efforts, Howard Jacobson leaves me cold – I can see he’s brilliant, I just can’t feel it – and Joshua Ferris has yet to induce any emotion stronger than a shrug and an ‘eh, could be worse.’ Fowler can do no wrong in my book, but the lovely thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is stumbling across it without any preconceptions – which is pretty much impossible now it’s been shortlisted. And of course, there are always the books you think should make the cut – I’d like to have seen emerging author Anna Freeman’s Fair Fight or Emily Mackie’s In Search of Solace on there, but suspect we’ll see their names cropping up in connection with the Booker before long.

In the end, there’s nothing to provoke real controversy in this year’s shortlist – but nor is there anything to rival last year's giddy excitement.

Kaite Welsh is The List’s LGBT Editor. She is Chair of the 2014 Green Carnation Prize for LGBT authors, judged this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and is a Shadow Judge for the Desmond Elliot Prize.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014 will be announced on Tue 14 Oct.

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