‘Sloppy’ novels by celebrated writers discarded in favour of work by less established names

The Irish writer Joseph O’Neill and the American Marilynne Robinson head an eight-strong shortlist for the world’s richest literary award, the €100,000 (£88,000) Impac prize.

Selected from a longlist of 156 titles nominated by public libraries around the world, they are joined by the British writers Robert Edric, Ross Raisin and Zoë Heller. After the traditional cull of esteemed names, with writers such as Philp Roth, Salman Rushdie and José Saramago falling at the longlist stage, the rest of the shortlist is made up of novels in translation. In the event of a win for the French author Muriel Barbery, the German Christoph Hein or the Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, the prize will be split, with the winning translator taking home €25,000.

Speaking on the phone this morning, one of the judges, Anne Fine, said because of its wide-ranging, international nature, the panel “did not agonise over some of the big books at all”.

“I am often amazed by how sloppy the books by massive names are,” she said. “Sometimes we took a deep breath before agreeing that probably this book, had it been written by a debut author, would not have been looked at.”

Along with her fellow judges – the Irish academic Eve Patten, the Djiboutian author Abdourahman Waberi, the South African writer Zoë Wicomb and the Dublin-based author Anatoly Kudryavitsky – Fine quickly whittled the longlist down to a varied list of “around 50” titles. “It’s just a mystery how weird books are, and how far the styles and subjects range,” she continued which makes things “difficult at this stage. One sort of book, done absolutely perfectly, has to be compared with another which has a totally different style and reach.”

Fine confessed that she couldn’t remember the proportion of books that were first published in languages other than English. “I take the simple-minded view that you shouldn’t notice it’s in translation,” she explained, “and that if you do, something’s gone a little bit wrong”.

According to Fine, when it came to the “invidious decisions” which accompany the construction of any shortlist “readability did win out”. “If it’s not a good read, then it’s not a good book,” she said.

Marilynne Robinson is shortlisted for Home, an exploration of the secrets and evasions of family life which was the runaway winner of the 2009 Orange prize. It returns to the 1950s rural Iowa of her second novel, Gilead, examining the same events from a different perspective. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which was longlisted for the Booker prize and won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award, views the city that he has made his home, New York, through the lens of the cricket played by Caribbean and south Asian immigrants in inhospitable parks in the outer boroughs.

Zoë Heller is another New York resident who found it impossible to resist the lure of the Big Apple, setting her study of a dysfunctional family, The Believers, in Manhattan. Robert Edric and Christoph Hein focus on the legacy of war, with Edric’s In Zodiac Light charting the mental disintegration of the poet Ivor Gurney in a Dartford mental hospital after the first world war, while Hein’s Settlement traces the transformation of a refugee and the provincial town he winds up in after the upheavals of the second world war. Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which tells the story of an ugly, plump concierge and a 12-year-old girl who plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, was an unlikely hit in France, where it spent 102 weeks on the bestseller list.

With debut novelists Michael Thomas and Rawi Hage winning the Impac award in 2008 and 2009, Ross Raisin and Gerbrand Bakker can look forward to the prize ceremony on 17 June with keen anticipation. Bakker’s first novel, The Twin, is the bleak story of family discord in 1970s rural Holland, while Raisin travels to the Yorkshire moors for God’s Own Country, which garnered him a place on the shortlist for the Guardian first book award.

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