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Get shorty (says Ian McEwan)

Get shorty (says Ian McEwan)

Ian McEwan, Man Booker winner in 1998 with Amsterdam, has it in for long novels. Whenever he sees a 900-pager, he told Radio Four’s Today programme, ‘My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil . . . Very few really long novels earn their length.’ McEwan, of course, is known for writing short books (his latest, The Children Act, comes in as a literary size 8 – 224 pages). So is it a novel or a novella? ‘I would arbitrarily put the novella at 40,000 words and this is maybe 15,000 words more than that. If we can make this fine distinction, it’s a short novel rather than a novella.’ Although he likes books that can be read in a sitting, “like a movie or an opera or a long play” he doesn’t concede that others might like novels they can eke out over a longer period of time, more like a mini-series. Following the McEwan formula, his copy of War and Peace must be cross-hatched with blue-pencil deletions.

Eleanor Catton, whose Man Booker winning The Luminaries undoubtedly is a long novel (848 pages), has just won the New Zealand Post best fiction and people’s choice awards. Rather than spend the £7,500 prize money on cases of New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blanc or some such she is using it to establish a grant to help other writers. Finding herself in the ‘extraordinary position of being able to make a living from my writing alone, something I never dreamed was possible’ she wants to help her fellows. The grant, yet to be named, should allow authors ‘the means and opportunity not to write, but to read, and to share what they learn through their reading with their colleagues in the arts.’ Her chosen Kiwi writers will receive £3,000 each to bury their noses in books.

The longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction has just been announced and congratulations are due to Professor John Carey, chair of the then Booker Prize in 1982, of the Man Booker in 2003 and the Man Booker International in 2005. All of that judging has clearly taught him a thing or two about writing books. Whether his The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life wins will be revealed on 4th November. Among those who selected the Prof's book were fellow Man Booker alumni Claire Tomalin (a judge in 1980) and Ruth Scurr (2007). There is no hint of favouritism though, The Unexpected Professor is one of 15 books in contention, 14 of them with no Man Booker connection whatsoever.

John Dugdale in the Guardian has been looking to pointers as to who will win this year's Man Booker. He wonders if the first sentences of previous winners offer a clue. Bring up the Bodies, The Sense of an Ending and The Finkler Question all have short initial sentences. Brevity, he reckons, is also the dominant trend in the first sentences of the 2014 longlist, evident in Howard Jacobson’s J (‘Mornings weren't good for either of them’), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (‘the night was clere though i slept i seen it’), Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (‘The mouth is a weird place’) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (‘Why at the beginning of things is there always light?’). Following this rule, one of them should be the winner. Whether his theory holds water will become much clearer with the shortlist announcement on Tuesday (9th September).