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US author George Saunders favorite to win Man Booker Prize

LONDON (AP) — American author George Saunders is favored to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction with his novel of the afterlife, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” according to British bookmakers.

Bookmakers Ladbrokes and William Hill made Saunders the front-runner among six finalists announced Wednesday for the 50,000-pound ($66,000) prize. His novel is set in a Washington graveyard, where President Abraham Lincoln visits the body of his 11-year-old son in 1862.

Three British and three American authors make up the finalists. They range from 29-year-old first-time novelist Fiona Mozley to 70-year old New York icon Paul Auster.

Alongside “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the contenders authored by Americans are “4321,” Auster’s story of parallel lives, and Emily Fridlund’s Midwest coming-of-age tale “History of Wolves.”

The other finalists are British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s migration story “Exit West,” Scottish novelist Ali Smith’s Brexit-themed “Autumn” and “Elmet,” Mozley’s novel about a fiercely independent family under threat.

The judging panel culled books by several big names from the 13-novel list, including Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time,” Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by previous Booker winner Arundhati Roy.

The prize, subject to intense speculation and a flurry of betting, usually brings the victor a huge boost in sales and profile.

Founded in 1969 and originally open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, the Booker expanded in 2014 to include all English-language authors. The first American winner was Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” in 2016.

The change spurred fears among some British writers and publishers that Americans would come to dominate a prize whose previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel.

House of Lords member Lola Young, the judging panel’s chairwoman, said “nationality is not an issue” in the group’s deliberations.

“We judge the books that are submitted to us,” Young said. “We make our judgment based not on anybody’s nationality or their gender or anything else, other than what is written on those pages.”

Thirty percent of the 144 books submitted by publishers were American, slightly down from last year.

The winner will be announced Oct. 17 during a ceremony in London’s medieval Guildhall, after the five judges meet for a final time.

Young said discussion had been “robust,” but there had been “no fights — yet.”