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Man Booker Shortlist Press Conference

Man Booker Shortlist Press Conference

The announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist is always a nervous time for the judges. They sit in front of the assembled press and media representatives like five proud parents – glowing but nevertheless nervous about showing off their child for the first time. Naturally the offspring – six children in this case – are beautiful in their eyes but will they be seen as bonny or as wrinkly little things in the eyes of others?

Like parents with more than one child too they cannot give any hint of special treatment. If any of Messrs Macfarlane, Kearney, Douglas-Fairhurst, Haynes and Kelly has a personal favourite among the shortlisted books then they were giving nothing away. They named them each with a proper sense of pride: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Harvest by Jim Crace,  The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Six different personalities and six good reasons to dote.

Robert Macfarlane, the chair of judges, said that what they had been looking for at the beginning of their reading was originality, for “novel novels” in fact. And the judges found them. The shortlist, he said, was “Global in its reach and demonstrates the vitality and range of the contemporary novel at its finest … World-spanning in their concerns, and ambitious in their techniques, they remind us of the possibilities and power of the novel as a form.” The truth of these words was apparent when each of the judges spoke briefly about one of the shortlisted novels.

Macfarlane himself discussed NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. Its heroine, Darling, was, he said, “unforgettable” while the book itself was “fizzing with stylistic verve”. It is the chairman's prerogative to speak about a second book and he praised Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland for being “calm and lucid in tone” while “devastating in the sadness that it gathers over its length”.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst called Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary “a miracle of compression … as dense and polished as a diamond”, it is a book that turns one of the world's most familiar stories “strange and new”. The shortness of the book, which has been much mentioned, drew the defence that the best writing defines its own boundaries and that Tóibín's novel was a big book in a short form.

Stuart Kelly neatly described Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries as “simply luminous”. He was impressed by its scope and the way “it asks questions about fate and destiny, character and personality”. It is, he commented, “like a Kiwi Twin Peaks”. Martha Kearney thought that Jim Crace's haunting The Harvest was neither a “period piece nor an allegory” but rather “a dark Mummer's Play about landscape, tradition and the dispossessing power of money”. Natalie Haynes meanwhile praised Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being for it's blend of “savvy web-slang, Zen Buddhism and magical thinking”. It is a novel, she said, that is “incredibly clever, incredibly sweet and bighearted”.

Of the list as a whole, Stuart Kelly thought it showed something of a sea change in publishing and how the old clichés about the “north London novel” were dead and buried. Publishing now, he noted, is “more open to diversity” than ever before.

So the judges have sent their shortlist out into the world where it must make its own way through the comment, discussion, criticism and praise that the Man Booker always generates. The judges will be keeping a close eye on the books' progress, not least because they must now read them all again before picking a winner on 15th October.

Man Booker 2013 Judges with the shortlisted books (credit Janie Airey)