James Naughtie is thrilled. ‘Why?’ I hear some of you thinking. 'Who is James Naughtie?’ I hear some others wondering. Whoever James Naughtie is and whatever might be the reasons behind his excitement, why should it be made public knowledge? What has that got to do with hoi polloi?
Let me advise you that James Naughtie is the chair of the 2009 Man Booker prize committee. And the Man Booker, as all of us lettered, cultured, cultivated, informed, and scholarly people know, is the most prestigious literary award on this side of the Atlantic (or the Urals, depending on the direction from which you are looking); therefore, when James Naughtie publically admits to have been excited, we know that it can be only about one thing: he is excited about the short-listed novels.
So, what are the novels that are in the running for the award this year? They are, in no particular order, as follows:
The Children's Book, A. S. Byatt
Summertime, J. M. Coetzee
The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
There are two former Booker winners on the list—A.S. Byatt, who won it in 1990, and J.M. Coetzee, who has won it not once, but twice. Sarah Waters, I am sure, has been shortlisted in the past, for Fingersmith and also for Nightwatch. I do not think Hilary Mantel has hitherto been shortlisted or indeed been ever in serious contention, although her Beyond Black, one of the most delightfully quirky novels I have read in recent times, deserved to be short-listed. Finally, completing the short-list, are Adam Foulds and Simon Mawer, of whom I had never heard, but that is neither here nor there; Mawer, I discovered, has published seven novels prior to the Glass Room. Adam Foulds, at 34, is the youngest of the pack.
So, what is James Naughtie excited about? Well, he is excited about getting a headache. The short-list, he enthuses, is so strong, it is going to give him and his fellow panelists—he is sure of it—a headache when they meet to pick up the winner. These authors, Naughtie would have us believe, are at the peak of their powers, and he is definitely looking forward to reading their offerings again (and risking a headache).
The short-list this year is remarkable for, if nothing else, the absence of Irish or Indian authors, who had, in recent years, been a permanent fixture of the short-lists. Indeed, with the exception of the South Africa born Coetzee, all the short-listed authors are English. This meant that the veteran Irish Novelist, William Trevor, who, along with Beryl Bainbridge and Anita Desai, surely must hold the record of not winning the award despite being short-listed several times, and Colm Toibin, who has been shortlisted twice before, were both overlooked.
Who will win the award this year? Not having read any of the short-listed novels, it is impossible for me to form an informed view, but it will not deter me from making educated guesses. I can confidently reduce the list from six to four. I would be very surprised if either Mawer or Foulds wins. They must be the outsiders. Last year, Arvind Adiga, a rank outsider, surprised everyone (including probably himself) by winning the award. I do not think that will happen this year.
That leaves the four heavyweights: Cotezee, Byatt, Waters and Mantel. Coetzee, if he wins, would complete a hat-trick, and, much as I admire the Nobel Laureate, I do not think that is going to happen. So, Coetzee is out. That leaves us with the three women authors. Hilary Mantel is the Bookie’s favourite for her historical novel, Wolf Hall, set in the court of Henry VIII. That should rule her out: in recent years, no one who was favoured by the bookies has actually won the award. The last one who was an overwhelming favourite of the bookies and went on to win the Booker was Arundhati Roy, and she won it more than a decade ago. So Mantel is not going to win, I think. That leaves us with Byatt and Waters. Byatt has won it once, while Waters has been shortlisted, but not won. I think it will be third time lucky for Waters. Yes, I predict that Sarah Waters will win the Man Booker award in 2009. Or will she? The judges might decide to add Byatt’s name to the list of those who have won the award twice (Coetzee and Peter Carey). Or they might be driven by the desire to create history by awarding Coetzee(who never bothers to attend, but allows his publishers to submit his novels to every possible literary award) the prize a record third time. Or they might choose Hilary Mantel as the winner, thereby proving the bookies to be right when everyone is expecting that the bookies-backed author would lose out. Or, they might do an ‘Adiga’ and choose an author whose chances of winning are considered to be slimmer than an anorexic’s waist-line. In which case either of Foulds and Mawer is in with a chance. Anyone can win really; I have no idea who will win.