BOOKS / And the winner will be . . .: . . . the writer who plays it by the time-honoured book and adheres strictly to D J Taylor's six rules for guaranteed success at tomorrow's Booker Prize ceremony
1 Anywhere but here. England is out. The inability of English writers to compose books about English characters in English settings is a critical commonplace. The days when David Storey could canter home with a prosaic account of a Yorkshire boyhood (Saville, 1976) or Penelope Fitzgerald elegise life on a Regent's Park Canal houseboat (Offshore, 1979) are dead. Even Alan Hollinghurst, who is this year's most English contender, has shrewdly set much of The Folding Star in Belgium.
2 Make it exotic. A corollary of the above. From the perspective of the average Booker judge, Africa is not too remote nor the outback too outlandish. Favoured locales include Nigeria (Ben Okri's The Famished Road, 1991), the North African desert (Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, 1992) and Australia (Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, 1988). Significantly, Penelope Lively was forced to relocate her characters from the home counties to Egypt before she could win with Moon Tiger in 1987. Lots of good candidates this year, including Romesh Gunesekera's Reef (Sri Lanka) and Abdulrazak Gurnah's Paradise (Africa).
3 Make it historical. Nobody writes novels of contemporary life anymore. Even Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) went deep into the 1960s. A S Byatt's Possession (1990) did its best, but was mostly concerned with a Victorian treasure hunt. Good topics include the 18th-century slave trade (Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, 1992), the Second World War (Lively, Ondaatje), and the Empire. The Viking voyages of George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time are a must here.
4 Lay on the post-Imperial guilt. Again, a corollary of the above. Booker books are about making people feel bad. Even if set in England they have a tendency to home in on the collapse of Empire (Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, 1989) and the oppression of subject peoples. A subtle variant on this theme comes towards the end of Sacred Hunger when two of the escapees, snug in their Utopian hideaway, began to discuss monetarism. There's a strong entry this year: Paradise is about an African boy sold into bondage; Reef is set in a former colony; and James Kelman, author of How Late It Was, How Late is convinced that Scotland is still trampled underfoot by the wicked English.
5 Make it poetic. A lush, arboreal style (critical shorthand for 'over-written') usually infects two books on any given shortlist. The last major example was The English Patient. Sadly, Kelman has already disqualified himself - as Private Eye commented, if you know the meaning of the word 'fuck', you have read 10 per cent of his novel at a stroke. Gunesekera, with his careful descriptions of marine life, could be one to watch.
6 Make it long. No slim novellas, thanks very much. The Booker tradition is for great fat tomes (Oscar and Lucinda was more than 500 pages, Sacred Hunger more than 600), and if a book falls short of this demanding ideal you can always bulk it out with blank pages, as Bloomsbury did with The English Patient. The Folding Star, the longest of this year's shortlist by a good 30,000 words, is clearly a strong contender.
As well as the foregoing, and generally cancelling them out, is the Booker tradition of complete implausibility. Regularly in Booker judging sessions there emerges, as if from nowhere, a book which has been repeatedly turned down, grudgingly published, sparsely reviewed and occasionally derided. Does anyone remember Keri Hulme's The Bone People in 1985? Jill Paton Walsh, whose Knowledge of Angels was rejected by 14 publishers and not reviewed by the Sunday Times on the grounds of banality, is the latest in a long and distinguished line. The current Ladbroke odds of 10-1 are a gift.
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