Drum roll please, the Man Booker Prize shortlist has just been announced. From a long-list of 13 novels, we're down to six competing for the big £50,000 prize (Dh290,000). The six runners are: Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey; Room by Emma Donoghue; In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut; The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson; The Long Song by Andrea Levy and C by Tom McCarthy. Surprising, some will doubtless say, that David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet didn't make it. Nor did another well-established writer, Rose Tremain, earn herself a spot with Trespass. Missing from the list, too, is Christos Tsiolkas' controversial The Slap, much discussed recently for its opening scene in which a father at a suburban barbecue hits a child that isn't his own.
Carey and McCarthy are now the joint favourites for the prize. If the former takes it, he will make history as the first author ever to win the prize three times, having won in 1988 and 2001. So, if you've only just finished reading last year's Booker winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, now is not the time to sit back and congratulate yourself. Get going with this lot. You only have just over a month until October 12 when the victor will be announced at the usual black-tie dinner in London.
To say it's been a controversial year for the Booker Prize is something of a misnomer. For the Booker, every year is riven by spats and barbs about who makes which list and who doesn't, as befits a prize often referred to as the most important literary nod in the English-spoken world. This year, there were general murmurings of surprise when the two-time nominee Martin Amis failed to make even the long-list for his latest opus, The Pregnant Widow. And, a few erudite eyebrows were raised when six-time nominee and one-time winner Ian McEwan failed to make it with his eco-novel, Solar. Still, you can't win them all, chaps.
Since the Booker's beginnings, in 1969, there have been plenty of those who have lost out when perhaps they were more deserving, and vice versa. One of the most controversial of all Booker judgments remains Keri Hulme's the bone people about the Maori people and which contains graphic detail about child beatings. Picked as the 1985 winner, it caused two of the judges (Nina Bawden and Joanna Lumley) to publicly distance themselves from the decision. On the other hand, there are those who claim that one of the Booker's greatest success stories, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark, should never have been allowed because it wasn't technically a work of fiction. And yet it still swiped the prize and went on to sell well over a million copies.
The judges themselves have been known to make news. In 1991 Nicholas Moseley walked off the jury on the basis that his fellow judges were not interested in novels "of ideas". In 1971, Malcolm Muggeridge complained that it was impossible to get through the long-list and withdrew his services, complaining that the "sex bits" were upsetting him. In 1994, the critic and novelist James Wood forgot to tell his fellow panel that one of the books being considered for the shortlist was by his wife, Claire Messud.
Then there's the evening of the announcement, also often the scene of a drama. In 1980, Anthony Burgess said he wouldn't attend the ceremony unless his book won (it didn't), reportedly because he hated wearing black tie. In 1983, Fay Weldon's literary agent was smacked by the chairman of the Publishers' Association because of a speech she gave reproaching publishers for the deals they offered writers. In 1998, the jury's chair, Douglas Hurd, made a speech so long that the UK's 10 O'Clock News nearly missed out on hearing that Ian McEwan had won.
And what to do with the prize money? In 1972, John Berger won with G and promptly announced that he was giving half his money to the Black Panthers. In 1990, AS Byatt said it would go on a longed-for swimming pool in Provence. In 2003, the enfant-terrible turned writer DBC Pierre said it would go straight to those he owed. Not long now to find out whether this year's victor has similarly lofty aims.