BOOKS / More than just a passing interest: One isn't very keen on new fiction; another's in love with a nominee - his wife. On the day the Booker judges announce the shortlist, David Lister takes them to task

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Now here's a thorny problem for the Booker Prize judges as they decide upon their shortlist today. When do you declare an interest?

Do you declare an interest if your wife has written one of the nominated novels? What if you are chairman of the judges for the most prestigious award for contemporary fiction, but don't actually like contemporary fiction? Or you love contemporary fiction but can't abide your wife?

Every year the Booker provides a moment, if not always a book, to treasure. Last year the chairman of the judges, Lord Gowrie, forgot both modesty and nearly 50 years of Indian independence when he suggested that Vikram Seth, whose acclaimed first novel was unaccountably left off the shortlist, should have asked him, Lord Gowrie, to edit the epic.

But perhaps this year takes the biscuit, or to give deference to the sponsor, the frozen chicken. First one of the judges, James Wood, chief literary critic of the Guardian, fails to mention that he and one of the writers being nominated by his fellow judges are on more than nodding terms. She's his wife.

He then compounds his error by showing that he is a far better comic writer than most novelists, with an (unintentionally) hilarious self-justification in the Guardian, clearly a pastiche of P G Wodehouse: 'I almost said something,' he wrote 'and then the conversation was over and a new book was under discussion.'

Better was to come when John Bayley, chairman of the judges, novelist, Wharton Professor of English at Oxford and husband of Iris Murdoch, gave an interview saying he didn't much care for British modern fiction.

First the spouse question. It's easily solved. All judges should declare at the outset whether they have a relation who has written a novel in the year under question. If the answer is yes, they should be replaced.

As it happens, I say that not because of Mr Wood's lapse of common sense, but because of the integrity of Professor Bayley and his wife, Iris Murdoch. He did declare an interest at the outset. His wife had a novel out and in the circumstances she did not want it to be considered. Quite so, the fair and decent thing.

But hang on a minute. Which is more important - that Professor Bayley chairs the judging panel, or that the latest novel by Dame Iris Murdoch, one of the great post-War novelists, be considered for the Booker Prize, with the international prestige, promotion and literary discussion that would automatically ensue? There are other professors of English, inside and outside Oxford, who could chair the judging panel. There aren't too many Iris Murdochs.

But the presence of Professor Bayley has given us a welcome and necessary, if slightly confused, debate on the literary merit of today's novelists. 'New fiction,' he says, 'is at best ambitious and at worst pretentious . . . The cosy idea of curling up with a novel has gone. Novels used to be an escape from life. People still read P G Wodehouse, for example, but there are no contemporary P G Wodehouses. It wouldn't do any harm if there were.'

Writers today, he adds, would like to write old fashioned novels, but feel they can't, that they have to follow unspoken rules, 'getting all the horrors in - abortion, all that sort of thing'. And there is too great a degree of political convergence 'as if we've all agreed to think the same thing'.

Well, yes and no. As for writing about 'horrors' like abortion, Dickens, as Professor Bayley knows, wrote about far worse. And we do have comic novelists, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe, Kingsley Amis, and a good many others. But probably he is right that the literary establishment, generally based in London, tends to be of a similar centre-left persuasion, which perhaps results in a lack of radical thought or exploration in modern novels.

Most interesting is his use of the phrase 'curl up'. 'I love to curl up with a good book' is not a phrase one hears overmuch these days, and even less does one hear 'I love to curl up with a good Booker winner.' Generally, the sales of a Booker prize winner are relatively small compared to genuinely popular novels, and neither the prize nor the writer who won it permeate the national consciousness. There are a staggering 200-plus book prizes in Britain and Ireland. If the Booker is to continue to justify its place at the pinnacle of all this backslapping, then it should continue the debate Professor Bayley has started.