Man Booker prize 2015 – the shortlist – Robert McCrum

In Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss describes meeting a tribe who don’t know what writing is. To assert his status, the tribe’s chief picks up one of the celebrated anthropologist’s pads and starts scribbling on it, to impress his subjects with his superiority.

Once upon a time, this might have been an apt metaphor for Booker’s judgely antics: tribal leaders affecting an expertise beyond their reach. This year, thankfully, we are not in head-hunting territory. The Booker jury has chosen some powerful finalists. Michael Wood, its chair, has said: “Frankly, they are pretty grim.” But never mind the mood. What’s remarkable here is the polyvalency of English prose in 2015, from the academy to the ghetto, taking in Jamaican patois, Nigerian English and the dialects of Sheffield, Baltimore and New York.

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