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Get Ready for the 2016 Man Booker Prize

Roger Tagholm By Roger Tagholm Published on October 3, 2016

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The £50,000 Man Booker Prize is the grand duchess of literary prizes. Every year it sashays into London’s 15th century Guildhall – a cross between Downton Abbey and Hogwarts – to be feted by the great and the good of the industry, all in their black ties (apart from one or two renegade writers and critics who like to appear ‘different’), dinner gowns and sparkling jewellery. It’s a posh, glittering occasion, excellent for spotting who is there (the novelist Malcolm Bradbury used to talk about the ‘over the shoulder’ Man Booker stare) and the occasional memorable speech or hint of controversy.

Is there a theme to this year’s shortlist? Darkness, violence and outsiders might cover part of it. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project retells the true-life story of the teenager who was accused of a triple murder in a remote crofting community in 19th century Scotland – imagine In Cold Blood transferred to the Highlands. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which is set in a suburb of Los Angeles, revels in dark humour. Its narrator – who is black – tries to reinstate slavery and segregate the local high school to give the town back its essential identity and rescue it from gentrification.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We have Nothing and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk both deal with relationships – between musicians in Revolutionary China in the first and between a mother and daughter as they work out their difficult bonds of love in the summer heat of a small Spanish fishing village, in the second.

David Szalay’s All That Man Is tells the story of nine men at different stages of their lives in different countries across Europe, with some critics questioning whether it is a novel or a collection of stories; and finally, there is Ottessa Moshfeghs’ Eileen which is back to darkness again in this tale of a disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s carer in his squalid home and her day job as a secretary at a young offenders prison, which is full of its own horrors.

But there is something else going on with this year’s shortlist too, something that is causing much comment among the publishing community: it is the rise of the independent.

Three of this year’s shortlisted titles are from small, independent publishing houses. Burnet’s novel is from Contraband, an imprint of the Scottish indie Saraband; Beatty’s is from Oxford indie Oneworld; and Thien’s is from Cambridge-based Granta. These are all tiny houses compared to Penguin Random House whose imprints publish the other three titles. They have nothing like the same resources, yet are managing to punch well above their weight.

Last year’s winner, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings was also published by an independent – Oneworld again – and the shortlist included Chiogozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, published by One, the imprint of London indie Pushkin Press. This year’s 13-strong Man Booker ‘dozen’ included Wyl Menmuir’s The Many, published by Salt, the small indie based in Cromer on the north Norfolk coast.

Why is this happening? Why are we seeing a renaissance in independent publishing and such success for the sector’s titles? Obioma’s title missed out on the Man Booker, but won the inaugural Financial Times Emerging Voices award, among others. Adam Freudenheim, who used to work at Penguin and is now publisher and MD of Pushkin Press, says: “There are many reasons, but among them are the growth of the big conglomerates – the bigger they get the less interested they are to some extent in smaller books/projects. This creates an opportunity for nimble indies. In addition, we're in a renaissance with indie bookshops, and Waterstones in many ways acts like an indie too in that it can't be bought and chooses books based on its own, non-corruptible criteria. And of course, Amazon is a level playing field for all publishers insofar as they stock everyone’s books whether you're self-publishing or Hachette.”

Whether any controversy occurs this year remains to be seen. During the prize’s 46-year history, at least two winners have been accused of plagiarism. In 1996 critics remarked on the similarity of structure between the winner, Graham Swift’s Last Orders and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Six years later Yann Martel, who won the prize with Life of Pi had to answer accusations that he had stolen the idea from a Brazilian author, Dr Moacyr Scliar. In his defence Martel said: “I saw a premise I liked and told my own story with it.”

Meanwhile, Howard Jacobson’s speech in 2010 when he won with The Finkler Question, is fondly remembered: “I’m speechless [pause]. Fortunately I prepared one earlier [pause]. It’s dated 1983 – that’s how long it’s been…” – a reference to how many times he had failed to win the prize.

    Roger Tagholm is a London-based freelance journalist and author who has been writing about the book industry for nearly 30 years. He contributes regularly to Publishing Perspectives and The ... Show More