A couple of weeks ago - and I apologize if this sounds irritatingly rarefied - I was having lunch with a friend, a former Booker Prize judge. We were discussing the formidable problem facing this year's jury (Howard Davies, Wendy Cope, Giles Foden, Ruth Scurr and Imogen Stubbs) in their search for the finest novel of this year. Hasn't it, we asked, been a disappointing year for fiction? And how would they find enough books to muster a longlist of any gravitas?
Well, never underestimate bookish types. The longlist, announced last Wednesday, is an impressively robust answer to a dilemma that I find it hard to believe didn't perplex them as much as it did us. Chucking out the big names - forthcoming and much-trumpeted novels from Michael Ondaatje, JM Coetzee and Jonathan Coe, among others - and replacing them with several writers unknown to even the most devoted disciples of contemporary fiction has yielded one of the most unpredictable and exciting contests for some years. For readers keen to sample new voices unmediated by an excess of hype and criticism, this is the place to look.
It's a moot point whether booksellers feel the same way. In previous years, the longlist has been a flabby beast whose arrival has failed to translate into an appreciable uplift in sales. This year, for the first time, it was scaled down to a more manageable "Booker Dozen" - in reality, 13 novels. The idea, I would guess, was to deliver a nice, tidy package of books for bookshops to plonk on to their front-of-store tables in the quiet summer months. They can still do that, but with perhaps less gusto than if the list had been peppered with household names: the book trade fights notoriously - some might say shamefully - shy of the unknown, unless it is pretty, young and wearing a skirt.
The skirtless Ian McEwan is hardly unknown; in fact, he ranks among the most recognizable of today's writers, hence his immediate elevation to the status of favorite. Nine years ago, he won the prize with Amsterdam, a tiny slip of a book. The victory was thought by some to be a consolation prize for the fact that neither Black Dogs nor Enduring Love had won. This year, On Chesil Beach, another tiny book, is in contention. Will it triumph because neither Atonement nor Saturday prevailed? Its many fans would rail against that simplistic summary, but it is not without basis. My view is that McEwan, a vastly accomplished novelist who can count diligence and clear-sightedness among his attributes, has nevertheless experienced a quite breathtaking over-inflation of his reputation. It is not his fault - it is ours.
Other better-knowns include AN Wilson, Peter Ho Davies, Anne Enright and Nicola Barker, my favorite. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend her novel, Darkmans, but I would suggest that you book a month off work and read it with some herbal sedatives by your side. It is brilliant but exhausting, and it is also more than 800 pages long.
Of the others, it is difficult to read the runes. One can discern a strong interest in the past (Ho Davies and Wilson have both reimagined the life stories of Nazis, while Tan Twan Eng takes us to Penang in 1939) and in culture clashes (not least Mohsin Hamid's story of a Pakistani man caught in America after 9/11 or Edward Docx's family tale, set in both London and St Petersburg). But to attempt to excavate patterns is to mistake the judges' purpose, which has surely been to confound expectations. Good for them.