The world's most prestigious prize for literary fiction is awarded on Tuesday night and, as ever, the short-list has sparked plenty of debate, with big name Americans dominating and two debuts receiving shock nominations. Betting.Betfair's very own bookworm Max Liu tries to pick the winner.
"Smith was previously nominated in 2001, 2005 and, according to the judges in 2014, narrowly lost out to Richard Flanagan that year. In 2017, I've a feeling it's going to be close between Autumn and Lincoln in the Bardo and, while I love the latter, I know several readers who found it gimmicky. If the judges are similarly divided by Saunders' novel then it could well be fourth time lucky for Smith."
To level with you - betting on the Man Booker Prize is notoriously difficult which is probably why there's so little liquidity in the market on the eve of the prize. The other thing, is that my track record when it comes to picking the winner isn't great. In about five attempts, I've got it right once - when Howard Jacobson triumphed as 8/1 outsider in 2010 - even though I read and review tons of fiction ever year. Then again, I'm not sure I know anyone who has a good strike rate when it comes to predicting the winner.
Famous Americans top and tail the market
Since the Booker was opened to American authors in 2014, we've seen one American winner (Paul Beatty last year for The Sellout) and six American nominees. This year, there are three on the shortlist, including the favourite George Saunders and Paul Auster.
A celebrated author of short stories for two decades, Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders' first novel. It's about Abraham Lincoln's grief after the death of his 11-year-old son. The "bardo" is the limbo between life and death and much of the novel takes place in a Washington DC graveyard. It's a dazzling reinvention of the historical novel, experimental yet deeply satisfying.
But they say the favourite never wins.
Auster subverts the literary bildungsroman with 4321, an epic tale of a boy growing up in America in the second half of the 20th century. Many critics would be surprised if it were to win, especially those who panned it on publication, but Auster's publisher, Faber and Faber, is currently celebrating the Swedish Academy's decision to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro, so perhaps a shock double for them is on the cards.
Don't rule out the debuts
It's great to see two debuts novels nominated. Some excellent debuts have won over the years - Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997), for one - and we haven't had one since Aravind Adiga's White Tiger (2008).
The American writer Emily Fridlund is nominated this year for The History of Wolves but the real fairy-tale concerns Fiona Mozley, a postgraduate student whose fine novel Elmet has already caused two upsets by making the longlist then the shortlist. Can she go one further and win? After enjoying this haunting story of life on the margins in rural Yorkshire, Elmet is my pick for an outside bet if you can get around [8.0].
Ali Smith's year?
All the novels on the list address topical issues in their own way - Elmet poses questions about land and ownership which speak indirectly to our housing crisis, while Saunders' novel about arguably the greatest president reminds us of America's virtues at a time when the White House's current occupant represents its vices.
Mohsin Hamid goes for the global sweep in Exit West, a novel about war, refugees and the changing world order, while Ali Smith's Autumn is explicitly a novel of Brexit Britain. Smith wrote it in four months, following the referendum in June 2016. Writing about contemporary life at pace is a high risk experiment which, for Smith, pays off handsomely.
Smith was previously nominated in 2001, 2005 and, according to the judges in 2014, narrowly lost out to Richard Flanagan that year. In 2017, I've a feeling it's going to be close between Autumn and Lincoln in the Bardo and, while I love the latter, I know several readers who found it gimmicky. If the judges are similarly divided by Saunders' novel then it could well be fourth time lucky for Smith.
Max Liu is a freelance journalist who writes regularly about books. Find out about his memoir, The Best Man, here.