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Behind the Booker

September 22, 2007 |  9:49 am

When a book is on an award juggernaut -- like Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road" -- the process of awarding it more literary prizes seems predestined. How could the writer not win this or that award? And yet, no book has "inevitable winner" stamped on it: Marianne Wiggins’ essay for us earlier this  year, about being a National Book Award judge, told us so--so too does Giles Foden’s explanation earlier this week in the Guardian about the decisions behind this year’s Man Booker shortlist.

The piece by Foden (author of "The Last King of Scotland") is meant to illuminate the process--and, I suspect, to enable him to vent his grief about failing to get favorites of his own, like Pat Barker’s "Life Class," into the final lineup. But it only makes the process sound confusing. Much has been said about the major names that missed the finalist cut--J.M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Doris Lessing and Barker--but I’m more intrigued by Foden’s mention, almost in passing, of all the books he admired that never stood a chance. Why is Benjamin Markovits’ "Imposture," a story of Lord Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, not worth consideration? Or Justin Cartwright’s imagining of the plot to assassinate Hitler, "The Song Before It Is Sung"? Not big enough in scale or concept? Why not?

"When five people have to agree on 13 books from a 110-strong original entry," Foden cautions, "there are bound to be casualties."Pip_3

A depressing side note: The Nota Bene column in the Sept 14 Times Literary Supplement reports that, Ian McEwan’s "On Chesil Beach" aside, the only other book on the shortlist that has sold more than 1,000 copies is Mohsin Hamid’s "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Will being a nominee make a difference? Wait and see.

Maybe the selection of the winner should be left in the hands of the British gaming site Ladbrokes--they give Lloyd Jones’ "Mister Pip" the edge over McEwan!

Nick Owchar