The Man Booker Prize will be awarded for the 50th time tonight, so which of the six nominated authors does Max Liu recommend backing?
"Richard Powers and Rachel Kushner - the two American writers on the shortlist - could end up splitting the judges, leaving the way open for one of the less-fancied novels to win..."
In its 50th year, the big question about the Man Booker Prize - which will be awarded tonight in London - is, will it be won by an American author for the third consecutive year? The Booker was opened up to Americans for the first time in 2014 (prior to that it had been open only to English-language novels by writers from Commonwealth countries), a move which continues to cause controversy, with leading figures in UK publishing still arguing for the rule change to be reversed.
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the Americans debate. But regardless, this has been a good year for the Man Booker. The longlist was the first to include a graphic novel, in Nick Drnaso's excellent Sabrina, and for the first time a crime novel, Belinda Bauer's Snap, was in contention. New ground was also broken with the inclusion of Robin Robertson's The Long Take, a noir novel in verse, which has made it to the shortlist and is 9/2 to win.
There's also a debut among the final six, which is always cause for celebration, in Daisy Johnson's Everything Under at 7/2, and few would have predicted that Milkman by Anna Burns would on the shortlist and 7/1 on the day of the announcement.
Could Kushner or Powers be the third consecutive American winner?
Last year, the prize was won by the American writer George Saunders and, in 2016, it went to his compatriot Paul Beatty. This year, two of the six nominees are Americans. They really do get everywhere.
One of the Americans, Richard Powers, is the current favourite at 7/4 for The Overstory. I admire Powers' fiction, although I don't always enjoy reading it, and the density of his work can confound even the most committed readers. There's been talk recently about the Man Booker failing to produce winners which resonate with the reading public. Powers isn't going to do that for the prize and I don't believe he will win.
The other American on the shortlist, Rachel Kushner 7/1, is nominated for The Mars Room. It is by some distance the best novel I've read this year. Set in a women's prison, it's a profound and political story of our times, tackling America's incarceration epidemic and structural inequality with power and wit.
It's high time the Booker was won by a woman, and I expect the feminist academic Jacqueline Rose (who's one of the five judges) agrees, as the last four winners have been men. Some day soon the pendulum will swing and Kushner is a seriously tempting bet at 7/1.
On the other hand, at least one of the judges has, in print, previously expressed serious reservations about Kushner's fiction. There's also the possibility that being American will count against her. I hope I'm wrong about this.
And the recommended Man Booker bet is...
The panel of judges is formidable (no, it's not always) - chaired by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah - and it's difficult to envisage them sitting in their meeting on Tuesday afternoon, when they make their decision, considering writers' nationalities or brand Booker PR. Surely they will simply be thinking about which of the six novels they consider to be the best.
If you watched the documentary Barneys, Bust Ups and Books: 50 Years of the Booker Prize last night, you might recall the scene about 1994. That year, the judges were split between Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh. The prize looked destined to go to one or the other. However, the judges couldn't agree and, in the end, settled on a compromise candidate that four out of five could support, in How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.
Perhaps something similar will happen this year, with Powers and Kushner splitting the judges and leaving the way open for another novel to win. I think that novel could be Washington Black by the Canadian Esi Edugyan. It has an absorbing plot, it's global in its range - beginning on a sugar plantation in 19th-century Barbados and roaming through Canada and Morocco via London - and its author was on the shortlist for her previous novel. With all this in mind, Washington Black is the bet at 5/1.