Books: Two for the prize of one: Booker judge Mark Lawson defends the controversial decision to split this year's prize between two authors

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The Independent Culture
THIS WAS to have been a piece about how the 1992 Booker Prize judges reached a verdict. Extremists might argue that it is now a piece about how the judges didn't reach a verdict. On the morning after the announcement of the shortlist in September, some of us on the panel were appalled to be described by the literary editor of the Guardian as 'deeply conservative'. By dividing the prize equally between Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, we have at least taken some steps to rehabilitate ourselves as sopping wet liberals.

But the split decision was not a woolly compromise. Nor, as some of the late-night gossip at Tuesday's Guildhall ceremony suggested, was it the result of the judges on the numerically weaker side threatening to resign if their man lost. In fact, the first proposal that the prize should be shared came from someone who would, if the verdict had been forced to a casting vote, have been in the majority.

This is what happened. After nearly two hours, we were beginning to have fantasies that the live BBC2 coverage of the ceremony would open with a solemn Sarah Dunant announcing that the judges had been taken to a hotel for the night after failing to reach a verdict. There was a danger of a tepidly commended compromise novel sneaking the prize from between the disagreeing factions (as has happened before). Finally, in an attempt to end the voluble and articulate deadlock, we decided to try a form of proportional representation, listing the shortlisted books from one to six, with six points for the first and so on. Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth tied for first place. The arithmetic gave us conviction.

Some would compare the split prize to a no-score draw in football, a result traditionally regarded as dull. The sporting analogy I prefer is from cricket. In that game, a tie, with the sides numerically inseparable after three or five days, is the measure of a particularly thrilling contest. In the Ondaatje v Unsworth test, the sides were so well-matched in argument that it seemed the result must reflect this. Better a shared cheque than, as last year, a sundered judge.

What the verdict also mirrors, though, is this panel's recognition of the harshly arbitrary nature of such awards. Deciding between Unsworth and Ondaatje is, to take another analogy from cricket, England v The Rest Of The World: the rattling historical narrative against the dense poetic meditation; the book powered by plot in opposition to the book of which the motor is the prose. How can they fairly be compared? It seemed to us - as, I suspect, to many Booker panels - that the buffet at the Guildhall should consist of chalk and cheese. All critical perspectives are subjective. The gamble of the Booker, and of other literary prizes, is that five clashing subjectivities will produce a kind of objectivity.

It seems to me a reasonable, or at least an accurate, complaint that the shortlisted books tended towards the heavyweight theme, the historical subject and, specifically, the Second World War. However, this was not because the panel were military fetishists, our chests clanking with medals, or because we were especially sombre- minded. In both density and setting, our selection reflected the clear bias of the total entry. At the moment, most British and Commonwealth novelists are advancing on the past; because, I think, in a world turning with bewildering speed history stays still. And in this uncertainty, apparently, jokes seem inappropriate. We would have welcomed more comic novels. On the question of our omissions, the ritualised howls of outrage were, this year, particularly half-hearted. A N Wilson accused us of choosing books of which no one had heard, but surely one of the purposes of the Booker is to bring unfamiliar authors to attention. I hope, for example, that shortlisting has lifted the careers of Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy) and Michele Roberts (Daughters of the House).

A columnist in the Observer suggested that the judges should publish the long-list of 20 books from which the announced six are chosen. So, as part of the superior service provided by this Sunday newspaper, let me say that the other 14 authors in our Top 20 were, in alpabetical order: Beryl Bainbridge (The Birthday Boys); Jim Crace (Arcadia); Michael Dibdin (Cabal); Janice Elliott (City Of Gates); Alasdair Gray (Poor Things); Shena Mackay (Dunedin); Hilary Mantel (A Place Of Greater Safety); Paul Sayer (The Absolution Game); Adam Thorpe (Ulverton); Colm Toibin (The Heather Blazing); Rose Tremain (Sacred Country); Marina Warner (Indigo); Nigel Williams (They Came From SW18); Jeanette Winterson (Written On The Body). As I throw away my bookmark and Optrex, my biggest regret is that Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, both a chronicle of English history and a commentary on the evolution of the English language, did not get further.

I sustained myself during the judging by putting aside in a cardboard box the books which I would start reading, as a reward, for pleasure, when the task was over. The stack included the new Gunter Grass, the latest Inspector Morse and the memoirs of Muriel Spark. But, in fact, on Wednesday, I was forced to begin the economic position papers of Bill Clinton. Those authors who failed to win or be shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize may find some comfort in this evidence of divine retribution.

(Photograph omitted)