Books: A Week in Books - Posterity makes dunces of critics - and judges

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ONE OF the unexpected joys of judging the Booker Prize (as I will this year) is to watch the media take all the decisions for you, long months in advance. Every cultural tipster that I run across now writes with vast assurance that this year's last-ditch battle will pit Salman Rushdie against Vikram Seth. A tabloid even topped its review of one of these with "The Booker Prize winner 1999". Maybe the house astrologer has to write the headlines too.

We shall see. What really bothers any judge, of course, are not premature acclamations but the looming spectre of the Man Who Sacked The Beatles. The nightmare is to miss a a future global classic and have that error echo down the long halls of posterity.

Criticism of the English novel by contemporaries - even by many major writers - reveals a pretty dismal record on this score. Sometimes, the oversight stems from a plain collision of values. Recalling the pantomime high jinks of Laurence Sterne, that strict classicist Samuel Johnson said: "Nothing odd will last. Tristram Shandy did not last." Oh, yes it did ... Sometimes, a kind of jealous spite intrudes when critics see their own game played with a genius they could never match; hence Virginia Woolf, digging down into her private pit of snobbery to call Ulysses "the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridge's".

And, sometimes, a baffling blindness grips a great work's first "expert" audience. Next Monday and Tuesday, BBC2 will transmit Tony Marchant's impressive new adaptation of Great Expectations. So deeply have Pip and Estella, Miss Havisham and Magwitch, settled into our cultural bedrock, one assumes that the novel was hailed from the off as a masterpiece. Not at all. I consulted the notices gathered in Edgar Rosenberg's exhaustive - but witty - Critical Edition of Great Expectations (W W Norton, pounds 8.95). Scanning the stuck-up halfwits and cloth-eared pedants who penned many of these assessments, one remembers (as so often with reviewers of mature Dickens) the old pub-chat line on Woody Allen. "I loved his early, funny ones, but now he's gone all serious ..."

How could they miss so much? The prize duffer in the Dublin University Magazine, for instance, who reads the first encounter of Pip and Magwitch on the marshes - quite simply, one of the greatest opening sequences in European fiction - and deems it a "merciless pumping-up of grotesque or ridiculous fancies"? Because true art hurts those whose secrets it exposes? Because education (of a sort) had wrecked their sensibility? Because they thought of Dickens as one thing, and he had grown into another?

All of these, and more. In any event, the lousy press for Great Expectations counts as a paradigm case of critical fatuity - and an Awful Warning. Meanwhile, mid-Victorian readers (in a country of 18 million, with 30- 40 per cent illiteracy) each week bought more than 100,000 copies of All The Year Round as the novel unfolded in its pages. With Dickens, the public, not the pundits, invariably turned out right. Could the same thing happen now?