Last week, the longlist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize was announced. It isn't the most generous fiction prize in the Anglosphere: that honour belongs to the IMPAC, a 100,000 (Dh524,000) award that hardly anyone has heard of. Yet it probably is the most gossiped about. Who's in? Who's out? Who's up? Who's down? As a source of tattle, the Booker is like a Lilliputian version of the Sun King's court (known to Gulliver as Blefuscu, of course).
Alas - and disappointingly for ghouls such as myself - there don't seem to have been any notable snubbings this time around. Former winners including John Banville and Margaret Atwood have books due out that might have qualified, but for some reason there hasn't been the sort of gloating and tooth-gnashing one comes to relish. A pity. The inclusion of a chimpanzee on this year's list would have a made a great stick with which to beat somebody.
As a matter of fact, this year's is one of the starriest line-ups in recent memory. JM Coetzee, a man who spends so much time fending off prize invitations it's a wonder he manages to crank out his books, has made the running with his third chunk of fictionalised autobiography, Summertime. He won the Nobel Prize in 2003 and if he takes the Booker this time it will be his third, making him the first person to score a hat trick at the Guildhall. He won't show up though: he's much too austere for show-offy nonsense like that.
AS Byatt is the other writer on the list who has had the prize already. That was for 1990's Possession, in which two academics become romantically entangled as they investigate a pair of 19th-century poets. This year's effort, The Children's Book, examines the Edwardian cult of childhood. Byatt would, one suspects, make a good consensus winner. She's scholarly in that nostalgic, bluestockingish way that the Booker's natural constituency - Radio 4 listeners - go for (and of course, the Today programme's chief inquisitor, Jim Naughtie, is chairman of the jury).
Moreover, Possession is one of the comparatively few previous winners that people genuinely liked at the time and can remember now (compare: Moon Tiger). Plus Byatt isn't Coetzee, which might help. The next tier of combatants includes Colm Toibin, shortlisted twice before, and Hilary Mantel, who was longlisted for her excellently bleak ghost story Beyond Black in 2005 and whose entry this year, Wolf Hall, is among the most popular books on the list. Set in the court of Henry VIII, it boasts the twin virtues of Mantel's icy, exploratory prose and a marvellous brute of a protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII. Historical fiction tends not to do well at the Booker - perhaps it smacks too much of genre - but Mantel is nothing if not an exception.
The other established names on the list are Sarah Waters, entering a ghost story of her own titled The Little Stranger; Sarah Hall, nominated once before and now returning to the lists with How to Paint a Dead Man, and William Trevor, up for an as-yet-unreleased novel titled Love and Summer, the blurb for which suggests that it indeed concerns both love and summer. The entrants with the most to gain from the Booker spotlight are Adam Foulds, James Scudamore and Simon Mawer, all of whom have hitherto laboured in different degrees of obscurity. Their books - a fictional depiction of the mad poet John Clare, of Sao Paulo's shanty towns and of a peculiar building in Czechoslovakia, respectively - all won the sort of respectful reviews that don't necessarily translate into readers. Congratulations, then, to Mawer, whose The Glass Room (his 10th book) picked up the biggest sales bump of the contest when the list was announced. Amazon reported a 64,000 per cent sales increase over the 24 hours after the news broke. Depressing to think what it must have started from.
Then there are the debuts. Samantha Harvey's has the gloomiest premise of all the nominees: The Wilderness tells the story of a man struggling to resist the onset of dementia. Those who make it a point of honour to hack through the shortlist each year may find themselves hoping this one goes for an early bath. Meanwhile, Ed O'Loughlin's Not Untrue and Not Unkind has won admiring comparisons with Graham Greene. Since resembling Greene never did Greene himself any favours at the Booker, it will be interesting to see how O'Loughlin fares with this one.
Yet the wild card in all this is James Lever's Me Cheeta, a fictional memoir purportedly written by the chimpanzee who played Tarzan's companion in the old Johnny Weissmuller films. The book turned out to be a tart Hollywood satire but when it first circulated Lever's name was withheld so that its chimp narrator could take the credit. A shame that they dropped the ruse, really. Me Cheeta is enjoying good odds to win, and the acceptance speech would have been a landmark in Booker history. If nothing else, it would have given the chattering classes something to get their fangs into.