On October 17, at the splendid annual dinner in London’s Guildhall, broadcast live on the BBC, George Saunders received the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. This was, by Booker Prize standards, an uneventful outcome. There were no obvious fissures among the judging panel, none of the losing novelists walked out, and the bookmakers, who play an outsized role in the lead-up to the prize, had installed Saunders as the favorite, so there was no upset angle to the story.
The chair of the judges, Lola, Baroness Young, paid tribute to Saunders’s book:
This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.
Baroness Young handed the prize winnings to a man who might be considered an aristocrat in his own field. The fifty-nine-year-old Saunders is an acclaimed author of short stories (six published collections) and nonfiction. He received a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2014 his book Tenth of December won the inaugural Folio Prize. (This is a troubled alternative, or competitor, to the Man Booker, established by literary figures unhappy with what seemed Booker insistence on readable books that zip along. It has faltered, though, changing sponsors and giving no prize in 2016.)
Despite his visibility and success, Saunders’s winning book was his first novel. This put him in a somewhat odd group of newcomers. Half the books on the six-title short list were first novels; the two others besides Lincoln in the Bardo were written by young, essentially unknown women: the British Fiona Mozley (twenty-nine-year-old author of Elmet) and the American Emily Fridlund (History of Wolves), aged thirty-eight. Fridlund is the product of the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, holds a PhD from the University of Southern California, and teaches at Cornell. Mozley is much more of a dark horse: a graduate student in history and a part-time clerk in a London bookshop who only recently began to think of herself as a writer, she composed her book on the train from York to London, on her smart phone.
The division between beginners and veterans is one way to map the short list. The other three novels were Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Autumn by Ali Smith, and 4321 by Paul Auster. Hamid, author of three other novels and a collection of short stories, appeared on the 2007 short list. The Scottish Ali Smith has been on the Booker short list three times before, in 2001, 2005, and 2014. And the American Paul Auster, author of more than fifteen novels, is so firmly established that he has published his collected novels in four volumes. He is seventy.
There were three American finalists and three from the UK or its commonwealth. There were three women and three men. There were even three books identified by reviewers as “coming-of-age novels.” Three are set in a more or less recognizable contemporary world—History of Wolves, Elmet, and Exit West (maybe a future world)—and three at least partly in the past: Autumn, which shimmers back and forth between a very contemporary setting, in which Brexit is a key theme, and the main character’s childhood; Lincoln in the Bardo, set in the early years of the American Civil War; and 4321, which begins in the early twentieth century and brings its protagonist up to 1970.