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

Judged by the librarian
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The implications of the new Impac Prize - or the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to give it its full, baggy honorific - have only just begun to sink in. At £100,000, the prize is by some way the largest available to novelists. Its proposed catchment area is similarly vast: any novel published anywhere in the world is eligible, provided it's available in English translation.

There is something counter-productive about such crazed inclusivity. When prizes began to be awarded for individual works rather than a writer's oeuvre, it was as a contribution to the nation's literature. To be eligible for one of the major prizes - the Booker, the Whitbread - you had to reside in the British Isles or the Commonwealth. That meant (for the Booker judges at any rate) between 100 and 130 novels would be eligible each year.

The Irish Times Award upped the ante by offering their prize for a novel published in England, Ireland or America. Allowing US writers in meant the potential submissions for the prize doubled; but the organisers, instead of requiring the judges to read 250 books, settled instead for a shortlist based on the recommendations of literary commentators. Now novels published in Guatemalan or Inuit are eligible for the Impac Prize, provided an English translation exists. But this means a potential submission of - how many? A thousand novels? Ten thousand? How can you possibly judge that lot? Impac's answer is to enlist the help of what they call "the Municipal Public Library System of Capital Cities worldwide''. Each country's central library will nominate three books.

I cannot recall when I ever heard such a bizarre and philistine enterprise. Librarians are not literary critics. Their job is to acquire books, lend them and retrieve them. Whatever their personal reading tastes may be, their sole professional connection with novels is to note how many times they are taken off the shelf by the public. By such a criterion, the judges of this misguided new prize will find themselves reading exclusively the works of Ms Catherine Cookson, Ms Joanna Trollope and their cultural equivalents from all over the globe.