Books: How to thrill a thirtysomething

A Week in Books

THIS WEEK'S most dramatic news for British fiction came, of course, when the government of Iran at last promised in public not to prosecute the fatwa against the winner of the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers in 1993. Salman Rushdie would have won with Shame in 1983 as well, according to the new Booker 30 celebration volume ( free in many bookshops), if Fay Weldon's very final change of mind as chairman of the judges had reached the prize administrator Martyn Goff in time. As she dithered once again, he made the fateful call that proclaimed the victory of J M Coetzee with Life & Times of Michael K.

On such slender threads do the fortunes of novels, if not lives, hang. And perhaps the Bosnian imbroglio has taught Douglas Hurd, chair for the 1998 award, the virtue of decisiveness. At any rate, he presides over a shortlist that turned out a tad less predictable than some of the prior rumours hinted - the sort of tales that confidently said neither Julian Barnes nor Ian McEwan stood an earthly this time. Enter - or rather exit - that same Martyn Goff. The Booker's eminence grise vanished for a while after laying his typically mixed-up trail of prime tip-offs and utter red herrings, planting (as one judge said to me) his "seeds of information and misinformation". The priceless Goff could spin for England. More, he could give lessons in the art to Peter Mandelson. In fact, he probably already has.

With Beryl Bainbridge, Patrick McCabe, veteran Martin Booth and newcomer Magnus Mills joining Barnes and McEwan, the field looks more varied and intriguing than those hoodwinked soothsayers had feared. Best of all, the Booker spinners had a fine comeuppance on Thursday afternoon when a software glitch downloaded the panel's supposedly secret long list into the grateful laptops (and PCs) of waiting journalists.

The 22 titles on this roster embrace both the usual suspects (William Boyd, Nadine Gordimer, William Trevor, Alan Hollinghurst, Helen Dunmore) and some enticingly left-field selections, from D J Taylor's Trespass to Cereus Blooms at Night by the Dublin-born Trinidadian, Shani Mootoo; from Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland to Fatima's Scarf - David Caute's provoking, self-published satire on the whole Rushdie rumpus. Now that we inadvertently know its content, maybe bookshops should start to sell this Double XI as well. In future years, why not simply publish the long list a month before the final half-dozen emerge? Because, I suspect, it would spoil Martyn Goff's fun.

All the leaks and gaffes and pratfalls help to stop the Booker getting boring: a fate that often steals up on 30-year-olds when they begin to pride themselves on their maturity. Heaven forbid. Po-faced dignity in literature belongs in the grave or the Academie Francaise (which amounts to very much the same thing). The English novel and its cousins overseas descend from the mischievous genre-bending rackets of Defoe and his chums - a legacy that Salman Rushdie, among others, upholds with glee. Perhaps he can now do so in peace. Meanwhile, Magnus Mills at 10-1 looks like the punt of choice to me.

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