Nobody knows how to run a literary competition like the British do. Just look at the Man Booker Prize, which today announced this year’s shortlist of six nominees for the best novel written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, and published in the U.K. during 2013: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Harvest by Jim Crace, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. As the prize has proved over the past 44 years, it isn’t just a matter of anointing many excellent books. It’s about delivering crowd-pleasing entertainment along with prestige. Man Booker has the formula down: Generate controversy, exclude Americans (it gets our attention), and prolong the suspense.
Today’s announcement is the last phase of a drawn-out quest. Since January, the committee of five judges has considered 151 books, reading (or at least flipping through) some 40,000 pages. On July 28, they came up with a longlist of 13 novels—“surely the most diverse” ever, the chairman said. This is a committee evidently eager to be accused neither of crassly favoring mere “readability” (the controversy of 2011), nor of stodgily backing predictable names (the Guardian high-spiritedly champions the “truly democratic, reader-judged” Not the Booker Prize). Five weeks from now, on October 15, one of the books will earn its author £50,000 and even more international success than the five other finalists are likely to enjoy, too.