A ray of hope in the shadowy world of books
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 14 December 1999
In fact, the only shocking aspect of the whole business thus far has been that Whitbread, having made a sensible decision, were then panicked by the sneering cognoscenti into asking the former Mrs Mick Jagger to prove that she was not a bimbo by listing her favourite reading. With commendably good grace under the circumstances, Jerry revealed that her favourites included Blake, Pushkin, Joyce and Garcia Marquez.
No reading list, of course, will alter the view from the dark interior of the critical establishment.
"Where do you go after this? Do you get a Spice Girl?" asked Martin Goff, administrator of the Booker Prize. "It never works, putting celebrities on the panel. These people speak a different language. When the other judges talk about form and narrative dialogue, they are left in the dark."
These words, which neatly articulate the majority view among the professionals, are profoundly revealing. Literary prizes should not be judged by readers, Goff is saying. They are, culturally speaking, not quite our class, darling.
It is a position that explains why so often books proclaimed as masterpieces by the hired hands of the arts pages bewilder and disappoint those who pay money for them in bookshops. Influenced by this system of critical apartheid, the beadier and more ambitious authors are now writing with an eye not on posterity or on potential readers, but on a small gang of opinionated experts.
There is another reason why Jerry Hall will be a better judge than most critics. She is not part of the scene. She has not been compromised by years of friendship and rivalry, by favours given and received. She has not taught on a creative writing course. She does not need to ingratiate herself with a publisher. Cyril Connolly once argued that "critics in England do not accept bribes but one day they discover that in a sense their whole life is an accepted bribe, a fabric of compromises based on personal relationships" and an informed glance at the nominations for books of the year that have recently appeared in newspapers and magazines - an annual ritual in which writers exchange Yuletide gifts of puffs and plugs for each other's work - confirms that Connolly's words are as true today as they were 60 years ago.
But perhaps the strongest case for including well-read celebrities on book-judging panels lies precisely in the fact that they are famous. The last thing that they need is publicity. Unlike the ambitious would-be novelist, the grandstanding media academic, the copy-hungry columnist, they have no vested interest in stirring up a spurious media controversy in order to promote their own careers and profiles.
"Booker will not go down this route," said Mr Goff, but, of course, it already has. Among eminent past jurors for the Booker Prize are to be found the names of Trevor McDonald, Joanna Lumley, Mary Wilson and Robin Ray - all of whom, I would venture, were likely to be left in the dark by talk of "narrative dialogue", whatever that may be. The shortlists and winners to which these celebrities contributed were no less sophisticated or intelligent than those produced by Establishment intellectuals, though there was notably less leaking, whingeing and general showing off than in other years.
The modelling world from which Jerry Hall comes may not be the last word in integrity and straight-dealing, yet she seems likely to bring more grace, discretion and honesty to the judging process than would most representatives of the shifty, shadowy world of books.
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