Tomorrow the book world will enjoy it's equivalent of Oscars night or the Grammies: the Booker Prize winner for 2012 will be announced.
The six finalists have been dissected, debated and in some cases dismissed since they were confirmed in September - and that's just by book journalists. The panel of judges, headed by Times Literary editor Sir Peter Stothard, will reveal their own opinions at around 10pm tomorrow night.
The power of the Booker to impact on sales should never be underestimated. In 2011, winning the prize increased sales of Julian Barnes's novel The Sense Of An Ending by 473%, which is nothing compared to year before when victory improved Howard Jacobson's sales figures for The Finkler Question by 1918%*.
Typically, all shortlisted novels will sell more during this week, in the run up to the prize, than in the entire time since they were first published. For novelists such as Alison Moore, shortlisted this year for her debut The Lighthouse, and her tiny independent publisher Salt, the enormity of this is obvious.
But of course it's not simply a case of sales - or the £50,000 cheque for winning. The Booker's heavyweight panel of judges - albeit it one that includes Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens to help with the publicity - and heavyweight list of past winners (including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul) means it still carries significant clout as a measure of serious, significant modern fiction.
Last year's chair Stella Rimington made a mistake in claiming she and the judges were factoring 'readability' into their assessment of the novels, particularly as in the end they opted for easily the most 'literary' title on the shortlist, The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes. The Costa Book Prize, the Galaxy British Books Awards and to a slightly lesser extent the Orange Prize (whatever that will be reborn as next year) already recognises and rewards the 'page-turner' market. Most book lovers would prefer that The Booker remains a hallmark of literary merit.
Announcing the shortlist, Stothard alluded to last year's debate about 'dumbing down' describing it as an "exaggerate row". Nevertheless he added: "I had a very clear idea what the Man Booker tradition has been in my lifetime and we stuck to it", suggesting that this year a conscious effort had been made to reclaim the Booker in the name of serious literary criticism.
No title on the list encapsulates that better than Will Self's Umbrella, 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness with barely a paragraph break (and no chapter headings) to help the reader along. Along with Hilary Mantel, nominated for her historical novel Bring Up The Bodies - the sequel to her 2009 Booker-winning Wolf Hall - Self is a strong favourite to win, even if, as he told us in a recent interview, the prize means "very little" to him.
For the other authors on the list, the prize presumably would mean a great deal indeed. Mantel, the best-known writer shortlisted after Self, would make history by becoming the first British author to win the Man Booker Prize twice. For debutante Moore, Deborah Levy, Jeet Thayil, Tan Twan Eng, victory would propel them into a new stratosphere of literary fame.
But even if Self and Mantel are deemed most likely to win, who actually should win?
While Umbrella is widely being called a career best and Bring Up The Bodies is arguably the most accomplished piece of fiction on the shortlist, there is much to admire in the others - from the dream-like and evocative prose in Thayil's vision of Old Bombay (Narcopolis), to Levy's devastating finale in Swimming Home to the impeccable structure and characterisation in The Lighthouse.
They all have their faults, of course, but in a year of when the Booker has gotten serious again, we'll cautiously put our money on Will Self to collect the biggest prize in the book calendar. But whichever wins, it will, as the author puts it himself "be a lucky book with a charmed life".
What do you think?
*Source: Guardian Datablog
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