Literary fiction is the bar, an increasingly wide bracket that can range from accessible to experimental.
Typically it’s a combination of big-name authors, many of whom are previous winners or nominees, with a few debut or lesser-known writers.
Last year was considered exceptional in its preference for debut authors and independent publishers.
This year’s debuts selected for the 13-strong longlist are the acclaimed short story writer George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”, Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves” and Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”.
The question that starts today’s column concerns Mozley’s “Elmet”.
In many respects, it is a fine debut but it has flaws and one wonders at its selection in a year that saw such super first-timers as Sally Rooney’s “Conversation With Friends”, Lisa Ko’s masterful immigrant story “The Leavers”, Preti Taneja’s “We That Are Young”, a mammoth retelling of Lear set in contemporary India, or the complexity of Gabriel Tallent’s teenage narrator in his upcoming debut “My Absolute Darling”.
The strengths of “Elmet” lie in Mozley’s expressive writing and her ability to evoke atmosphere and setting.
Centred on a fractured Yorkshire family who live on the margins of society, the book is set in modern times but with an older world treatment of its themes of land ownership, justice and revenge.
The father is a giant of a man, a bare-knuckle fighter whose gentleness at home shines from the perspective of youngest son Danny, the book’s narrator.
“Daddy” builds the family a house from scratch on an ash copse near the east coast main line, “far enough not to be seen, close enough to know the trains well”.
An epigraph from Ted Hughes’ “Remains of Elmet” notes that the place was “the last independent Celtic kingdom in England”.
This sense of an autonomous land is vividly related by Mozley.