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Booker fever

27 September 2004

The astonishing fact that this year's favourite for the Booker, David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas (Sceptre) has the hottest bookmaker odds ever (5 to 4) highlights the way in which the Man Booker Prize now commands attention outside the book world. This year's shortlist includes at least two novelists who are better-known than Mitchelll, Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Toibin, so the favourite is quite a surprise.

The Man Booker is by no means the most lucrative international book prize, but for some reason, in spite of the fact that it is only open to writers from the British Commonwealth and thus excludes American novelists, it still manages to arouse interest across the world. Perhaps its history of controversy is the reason, but it's that combined with the growth in English as a world language, giving an unchallenged international dimension to whatever is written in that language. Writers working in English really should be grateful for the good fortune that has given them a global market. Another example of this is last week's Goteborg Book Fair, which highlighted British literature, with 38 writers from the UK participating in what is essentially a Nordic fair.

This year's Booker Prize had the benefit of early controversy, when one of the judges, the writer and critic Tibor Fischer, proclaimed in mid-August, that publishers don't have a clue about books or what constitutes good writing. Commenting on the 126 entries, he said; 'Some entries were so execrable I reckoned they must have been submitted as a joke.' He concluded (in what one hopes was also meant as a joke) that 'the most damning charge I can make against British publishers is that no one has tried to nobble me' and stated his price (£10,000 for a shortlist and £20,000 for a - not guaranteed - winner). Mr Fischer is no stranger to controversy, but even the mild-mannered Chris Smith, chair of the judges, commented that some of the novels submitted had been poor, but that it was 'an exceptionally strong shortlist'.

Just in case the publicity juggernaut has passed you by, here's the Booker shortlist. The bookies, and the rest of us, will find out who has won on 19 October.

Achmat Dangor Bitter Fruit Atlantic Books

Sarah Hall The Electric Michelangelo Faber & Faber

Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty Picador

David Mitchell Cloud Atlas Sceptre

Colm Toibin The Master Picador

Gerard Woodward I'll go to Bed at Noon Chatto & Windus