A fatwa from the chair

A w e e k I N B O O K S

The world's most imperfect science is not, as is commonly assumed to be the case, medicine or astrology. It is the evaluation of literature. The subjective taste of the individual critic is fallible enough, but it is as nothing compared to the collective prejudices of a committee. This week saw the judging of an influential book prize get off to a shaky start.

The £25,000 AT&T Non-Fiction Award is the country's most valuable book prize. It used to be sponsored by NCR, the computer company, and its winners (such as Simon Schama's Citizens and Jung Chang's Wild Swans) tended to be incontrovertibly fine works - serious but with popular appeal. This year's panel, chaired by Alan Clark, announced on Monday their "long list" of 12 titles from the total 115 submitted: the lucky dozen included biographies of Leonard Bernstein and Louis MacNeice, and Nelson Mandela's A Long Walk to Freedom.

It was, however, the books left off the list that caused the judges a certain amount of heartburn. The rules stipulate that, to qualify, books must not be "merely" diaries or letters or collections of journalism. As more than one of the judges pointed out, this excluded Alan Bennett's Writing Home and Kenneth Tynan's Collected Letters, incontestably a pair of diamond earrings in the jewel box of British "non-fiction". Rather more sneaky was the exclusion of The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of Aids by the Independent journalist Simon Garfield. It was argued by the chairman Alan Clark that the book was no more than a series of Garfield's disparate newspaper articles bolted together and thus not appropriate as a contender. When his co-judges protested (Garfield's book is a written-through analysis, based on original research), Clark changed tack. "Why do we need another book," he demanded, "on a disease which is basically self-inflicted?" True, Mr Clark did not try to disqualify the work - as was his chairmanly right - but by the time it narrowly failed to get through on a second ballot, it was unclear whether the "inappropriate" label had stuck.

It is obvious that book prizes require rules, otherwise judges would find themselves considering recipe books and car manuals along with the biographies and social history. But perhaps a greater flexibility about the creative aspect of letters and journals would be "appropriate" - as would the choice of a chairman who did not let personal prejudices cloud his judgement.

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