Will Self and Hilary Mantel are the favourites to win the 2012 Man Booker prize for fiction next month, though half the titles in the six-strong shortlist are from independent publishers, and two are by debut authors.
The shortlist announced on Tuesday featured Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to 2009’s Man Booker-winning Tudor epic Wolf Hall. Self’s Umbrella, an uncompromising modernist novel of wartime memory and psychiatric affliction, is his first to reach this stage in the judging process for the £50,000 award.
Joining them were two debuts: Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, a meditation on abandonment set during a German walking holiday, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, a gritty evocation of opium addiction in the red light districts of 1970s Mumbai.
The list was completed by Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, the story of building a Japanese garden in postwar Malaya, and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, a study in the effects of depression on a group of tourists in south-western France.
Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who chairs this year’s panel of judges, praised the “pure power of prose” and “vividly defined values” of the six shortlisted books.
Sir Peter had already spoken of his desire to focus on “novels not novelists, texts not reputations” when announcing the longlist of 12 in July, which passed over new books from many established authors including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith.
The selections also mark a shift in emphasis from 2011, when chairman of the judges Dame Stella Rimington had stressed “readability” and the shortlist included several novels with strong thriller elements. The mantra for this year’s panel – which also includes the historian Amanda Foreman, actor Dan Stevens, and academics Dinah Birch and Bharat Tandon – has been that “a text has to reveal more, the more often you read it”.
Last year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, has now sold 300,000 print copies in the UK and all of the shortlisted novels can expect a dividend in the bookshops – something that will be particularly valuable to small independents Salt Publishing (The Lighthouse), And Other Stories (Swimming Home) and Myrmidon (The Garden of Evening Mists).
“It’s completely transformative for us as a press,” said Chris Hamilton-Emery, a director of Cromer-based Salt, which started 12 years ago as a husband-and-wife-led team. “It gives us economic security.” He described the world of publishing as “changing beneath our feet” and pointed to the role of social media in helping independents to reach new readers.
In a statement, And Other Stories, a not-for-profit publisher founded in 2010, said it was “almost lost for words” about making the shortlist.
Booksellers also welcomed the prominence of small publishers on the shortlist. “When independent publishers get this kind of coverage and independent booksellers get behind them, it does a huge amount to diversify the range of books that people will buy,” said Jonathan Ruppin, web editor at Foyles.
The winner of the prize, awarded annually to a novelist from the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe, will be announced on October 16 at London’s Guildhall.