Unlike stories about American literary prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, much of most of the British news stories about the just-announced shortlist for Britain's Man Booker Prize for Fiction is taken up with bookie quotes and analysis. Ladbrokes rates Ian McEwan ("On Chesil Beach," at 6/4) ahead of Lloyd Jones ("Mister Pip," at 4/1), while William Hill favors New Zealander Lloyd over McEwan at 2/1 and 5/2 respectively. To American eyes, it's strange -- more bookies than literary people are quoted on the authors and their works.
The five Man Booker judges are all serious people, presumably determined to evaluate the six finalists and vote first for their favorite, and if that book does not attract at least three votes, to coalesce around a second-favorite. Having sat on several book prize panels myself, including the National Book Critics Circle, I know that is the way it works.
However, the Man Booker judges can't help but read these stories about the bookies and their odds, and you wonder how it might influence them. If McEwen were the overwhelming favorite, would that make a judge incline toward a long-shot, in an unconscious effort to demonstrate absolute independence? The bookies are not laying odds based on quality, the way Las Vegas considers a football team's talent or a racehorse's previous runs. They are looking at the types of books, or nationalities of authors, that have won recently. Presumably they're making Indra Sinha a long-shot at 8/1 because her book is set in India, and Kiran Desai's 2006 winner, "The Inheritance of Loss," was also partly set in India, and they can't imagine the panel would pick another such book two years in a row.
But if I'm a judge (and the panel is new every year), I'm going to vote for the best book in the six. I'm not going to shove Anne Enright ("The Gathering," also 8/1 by Hill), a Dubliner, out of the running because an Irish writer won two years ago, amid much grumbling. I'm not going to vote for Ian McEwan because I think he was robbed when his last book didn't make the list, as some people believed.
But this is probably why the Man Booker is such an enjoyable wager for people. The really important variable -- what the judges think of the books -- is impossible to handicap. There's no accounting for, or laying odds on, taste.