George Saunders has become the second American author to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury).
His victory marks the second consecutive win for a writer from the US, after the prize began admitting English-language authors outside of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth four years ago and following LA-born writer Paul Beatty’s historic win last year for racial satire The Sellout (Oneworld).
Bloomsbury's win also makes it the third consecutive year the prize has been scooped by an independent publisher.
Chair of the judges Baroness Lola Young called Lincoln in the Bardo an “extraordinary” and “unique” piece of work and praised its distinct and innovative form which made the book “incredibly rewarding”.
The panel of judges was unanimous in its decision to elect Texas-born Saunders as the winner, following a five-hour meeting of “thorough” and “fierce” discussion, Young said. She added that “hand on heart” nationality was “just not an issue” in its decision-making.
Lincoln in the Bardo was also the bookmakers' clear frontrunner, the favourite with Ladbrokes at odds of 6/4 ahead of the prize ceremony broadcast on the BBC News Channel and held on Tuesday evening (17th October) at London's Guildhall.
Saunders is a prolific short story writer, but this tale is his first novel, set against the backdrop of the American civil war. It features a grief-shattered Abraham Lincoln in mourning for his 11-year-old son, Willie, on the night of his death. Based on a real moment in 1862 when Lincoln's son was laid to rest in Washington cemetery, it blends historical fact with fiction and plays with form in a multi-voice narrative.
Of the judges' decision,Young said: “I’m not going to pretend it was easy, we had a long, long discussion this morning from 10am until nearly 3pm, and we went through the merits of all of the shortlist as you would expect.
“But for us, [Lincoln in the Bardo] really stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling, the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost not-quite-dead souls in this other world, and then this juxtaposition of the very personal experience of Abraham Lincoln and the death of his young son next to his public life, which was of course as the person who really instigated the American Civil War... You’ve got this individual experience, very close and personal, you’ve got this much wider issue of the political scenario and the death of hundreds of thousands of young men, and then you’ve got this weird state across the cemetery where these souls aren’t quite ready to be fully dead and work out some of the things that affected them during their lives. And it’s an extraordinary piece of work - it was unique.”
She added the book's style was "utterly original" and revealed "a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative", which was all the more rewarding for its "challenging" form, playing with history and exploring the meaning and experience of empathy.
"When I first picked it up I thought, 'ooh, this is going to be very challenging'. Because it's in a very different format to that which I'm used to. I'm pretty conventional in terms of reading in some respects. But as I got into it, I was captivated by it. And it's that challenging thing which is actually part of its uniqueness. It's almost like saying, 'I dare you to engage with this kind of story in this kind of way'. To me it's incredibly rewarding."
Saunders overcame stiff competition from debut author 29-year-old York bookseller Fiona Mozley, whose novel Elmet (JM Originals) is a meditation on landscape and societies at the margins; as well as novels from fellow US authors Paul Auster and Emily Fridlund, who respectively wrote 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber), a “magisterial” investigation of multiple lives, and History of Wolves (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), another debut and acute psychoanalysis of unparented children.
It also saw off Mohsin Hamid's “daring, delicate, unsentimental” novel about the refugee crisis, Exit West and Ali Smith’s Autumn (both Hamish Hamilton), the first in a contemporaneous "seasonal quartet”.
Smith has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize four times but has never won. Commenting on Smith, referred to by one journalist at the press conference as "always the bridesmaid", Young added: "There is nothing I can say other than that she was shortlisted along with the other five authors. We went through the merits and characteristics in a very positive way."
Despite Young insisting that nationality was “not an issue” in the judges’ decision, Saunders’ win is likely to reignite the debate around whether the prize organisers were right to extend the eligibility to allow American authors to enter after critics have previously expressed concern the rule change would lead to US authors dominating the award at the expense of British writers.
Before 2014, only writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth could be entered for the award before it was opened up to any author writing in the English language. Since the change no British author has won.
Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate last year called the widening of the eligibility criteria “disastrous” for the health of the prize, while British author Julian Barnes later said the decision was “straightforwardly daft”. "The Americans have got enough prizes of their own," he said at the time.
Saunders will take part in his first official public event following the prize win at a New Statesman-partnered event at Foyles Charing Cross on Thursday (19th October) and will further be featured on a Royal Mail congratulatory postmark featuring the winner's name stamping mail nationwide from Wednesday until Friday this week (18th - 20th October).
He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University and is the author of nine other books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short-story collection).