Books: A runaway juggernaut

Emma Cook talks to Booker Prize survivors about the literary event nobody can dent

The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, yet the gossip, the back-biting, the fruitless speculation and the hurling of literary barbs has already begun. Why bother to read the books when the spectacle itself is so absorbing? A fortnight ago, the London Evening Standard published the "confidential" longlist, hinting that Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth were set to slug it out at the finale. If this was a sneaky attempt to flush out some denials and confirmations from the panel prior to the official announcement, it failed. The judges maintained a dignified silence.

That other enduring Booker tradition swiftly followed, the professional whinge. Professor John Sutherland, one of this year's judges, complained about the miserly pounds 3,000 fee for wading through 130-odd titles, calculating his "wage" at pounds 2.70 an hour. "It's fantastically hard work," agrees Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent, also a judge this year. "You end up working for below the minimum wage. Obviously it's a privilege, but for a major multi-national like the Booker I can't see why an extra pounds 2,000 would harm them very much."

No amount of such carping seems to dent the juggernaut of Booker publicity. Every year this well-oiled machine absorbs increasing numbers of PR people, publishers, television researchers, reporters and critics.

Certainly, funding the prize itself is peanuts compared to the cost of the hype and hoo-hah that surrounds it. According to Booker's former chairman, Sir Michael Caine, "the selection process and the prize were 70 per cent of the costs and the ceremony 30 per cent. Over the years, these proportions have been reversed." Does all this glitz compromise the prize's lofty aims?

Author Kate Saunders, a Booker judge nine years ago and one of this year's Whitbread judges, is all in favour of the marketing sheen. "It's nice to see something that makes good literature popular - and glamorous. It makes the literary world look quite aspirational. It's publishing at its best," she insists.

It's a brazen reminder that even rarefied literary fiction is in the end all about business and sales. For this reason the prize is now too big to ignore. Yet Booker Plc, the food group, must have one of the lowest profiles in sponsoring history. In a strange reversal of roles, Booker Plc seems to need some of the prize's cachet to rub off on them.

Stuart Rose, the chief executive, is keen to shift the balance. "Booker has had a tough financial year. The Booker Prize is a company asset and I have to ask, `Is it value for money for us?''' Rose is considering a range of initiatives including the launch of a junior Booker prize.

There's always the danger that commercial pressures from the backer will force a more populist approach than that of promoting "difficult" highbrow fiction. Already there are criticisms that the event is out of touch with the public taste, although judges are adamant that the Booker should set trends, not follow them. Still, it seems a little strange that such an influential institution has overlooked just about every mainstream trend in recent publishing history; from Nick Hornby and the New Lad narrative, to Captain Corelli's Mandolin; from Helen Fielding and the voice of the thirtysomething singleton, through to Irvine Welsh and the influence of dance and drug culture. Perhaps the choice of chairs gives a clue as to why this may be. This year it's Gerald Kaufman; recent predecessors include Douglas Hurd and George Walden.

But that's not the point of the prize, argues Saunders. "It's not there to give a chance to young writers, nor is it an award for long-time achievers. It's got to be the best novel published that year," she says. The fact that it's so well publicised is, she adds, a complete bonus. "The literary world always needed one big thing whereby everyone could be seen beyond the confines of their own world. Then telly was the cherry on the cake."

Not least for the spectacle of the literary figures themselves, brought down from Mount Olympus to sweat and fidget under the television lights. It's riveting to watch the shortlisted writers, like Oscar nominees, gamely attempt a rictus smile when another winner is announced. Ian Jack, editor of Granta and a past Booker judge sympathises: "They're not film stars and it must be pretty difficult sitting through that hideous evening of awards."

Still, the relief of not actually having to make the winning speech - sheer torture for many writers - probably compensates for losing. Author Jim Crace, shortlisted in 1997 for Quarantine, and hotly tipped this year with the extraordinary and already controversial Being Dead, insists: "On the night of the Booker I felt a tremendous sense of relief when I heard the result. I thought, at least I won't have to make that speech." But then, the publicity did come in handy. "My life did open up briefly - I was followed around by a couple of film crews and neighbours knew what I was doing at last. Then people got snooty on television about my book. This private world between me and my word-processor suddenly became public property." Not that he isn't grateful. "I suppose it's what you pray for. Yes, it's a media circus but it is a laugh. If I'm not going to be shortlisted this year, I'm sure I'll criticise it though," he jokes before adding, "I'd rather be on it than not."

This is an instinct that many PR's and agents recognise only too well around this time of year, and identify as the Booker Sulk. "It can be difficult," admits a PR who works for an author on the Evening Standard's spurious list. "There'll be so much sulking on Tuesday if he doesn't actually make the shortlist."

Few writers can deny the life-changing effect of the Booker experience. Ben Okri, Booker winner nine years ago with The Famished Road, admits the process itself altered his life irrevocably. "All winners are different afterwards, not because it goes to their heads, but things change." Like book sales, for instance. Last year's winning novel, Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, has sold 61,000 in the UK and 84,000 worldwide. Before the Booker announcement, sales totalled around 27,000. Meanwhile, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, the winner in 1997, has sold over a million copies worldwide; success has also meant an enhanced profile for her political activitism. Even Keri Hulme's impenetrable offering, The Bone People, sold 30,000 copies during the three months after its shock win in 1985 - good going considering it had shifted a mere 800 in its first print run.

Not that the Booker can ever be viewed by writers as a sole motivation for the writing process. "If that's the goal then you're in trouble," says Okri. Some would say the trouble starts when an author actually wins - it's rare to produce an equally accomplished novel again. So far no writer has ever won the prize twice; a prospect that seems to horrify Okri. He feels that once is sufficient for any novelist. "Only fools would want to get on to it again," he says disdainfully.

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