Skip to Content

Surprising Booker shortlist favours unknown writers

17 September 2012

The Booker shortlist is unusually interesting this year because of the presence of books by comparative newcomers, including two authors who have struggled to find a publisher at all and are now published by small presses.

The obvious favourite is Hilary Mantel, whose Bring up the Bodies has been widely praised by reviewers, many of whom have said that it's even better than her previous Booker winner Wolf Hall. Another obviously strong contender is Will Self's Umbrella, although this 400 page novel is reckoned to be hard to get into.

But apart from these two the other four books on the shortlist in what Peter Stothard, Chair of the Judges, has described as 'an exhilarating year for fiction - the strongest, I would say, for more than a decade', are from unknowns. He said: 'We read and we reread. It was the power and depth of prose that settled most of the judges' debates and we found the six books most likely to last and to repay future rereading. These are very different books but they all show a huge and visible confidence in the novel's place in the renewing of our words and our ideas.'

The Indian poet Jeet Thayil has made the Booker shortlist with his first novel, Narcopolis. Alison Moore's The Lighthouse comes from Salt Publishing, which is better known for its poetry, and the publisher has only recently turned to literary fiction with obvious and gratifying success.

Tan Twan's The Garden of Evening Mists is published by small Newcastle independent Myrmidon, who took a chance on his first novel, and he said last week: 'I was turned down by almost all the publishers in the UK. They said it was difficult to market and they didn't know what to do with it and it was Myrmidon who were brave enough to take a chance on me.' He added: 'I quite understand it - I'm an outsider so to break into the British publishing scene takes a lot of work and a lot of perseverance. I quite understand that when publishers are confronted with something slightly different they would balk at the extra step they might have to take to market the book.'

The author of Swimming Home, Deborah Levy, is shortlisted for her first novel since Billy and Girl 15 years ago and she too struggled to get a publisher. The result was publication by the new subscription publisher And Other Stories, which was set up with the express purpose of getting undeservedly rejected writers into print. She recalled the rejections in 2008. 'It was widely admired and all the rest of it but the feeling was that it was too literary, not commercial enough.'

Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories said: 'Swimming Home is blinding writing. When I read it first two years ago I knew it was a book to start a publisher for. (That a publisher who had not yet published a book could pick it up was our incredible luck. And the kind of incredible shortsightedness from other publishers that we are too young to have to 'fess up to.)'

It is remarkable that so many unknowns and so many writers who have struggled to get their books published at all should end up dominating the world's top literary prize. After last year's furore about the perceived popularisation of the list, this appears to be a list chosen solely for the literary merit of the books, without taking into account the reputation of the authors. This means that big literary stars such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Rose Tremain and Peter Carey, amongst others, are not n the shortlist.

For the publishers of literary lists it is a bit of a disaster, as houses such as Jonathan Cape and Faber might in the past have reasonably expected to get at least one book on the shortlist, with all the sales and excitement that brings. It also makes you wonder whether they are all that good at discovering new talent. To be fair, a big literary list such as the Cape one has a great many very highly regarded bestselling literary authors already, so looking for new authors is obviously not their priority.

One thing which may have changed over the last few years is that things have opened up. It's easier of course to self-publish, but also to set up as a publisher, as the enterprising And Other Stories has shown. It's also become extremely difficult for new literary writers in particular to find an agent to take them on, let alone to get a publisher. For big publishers it may actually be more economic to wait until a new author has something like a prize to recommend them and then to persuade them to move. This may be cynical but it's the kind of thing that happens when you focus on economics.

And Other Stories