A week in books

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Seamus Heaney is a fine figure of a man, large, rugged and bear- voiced, He also writes great poetry. But The Spirit Level - his first book of poems since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 - lacks some of the grit and bite of the best of his earlier writing. Beryl Bainbridge is a woman of a certain age: on the podium at an awards ceremony she looks fragile and vulnerable. Every Man for Himself, her latest novel, is her finest in a distinguished writing career. Last Tuesday night, Heaney's slim volume narrowly beat Bainbridge's novel to win the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Why did Bainbridge lose?

My opening ad hominem remarks are not irrelevant. The final meeting of the judges was, one gathers, a lively one, in which both Heaney and Bainbridge had their energetic supporters. Things probably got quite heated. When that happens, when emotions run high, surprising factors kick into the decision-making process. They enter unnoticed, their effect is inadvertent, and, crucially, we are none of us immune to them, try as we may.

In situations of uncertainty we all of us fall back on generally agreed ideas. Struggling to convince ourselves that our chosen candidate's book really is as good as we claim, we bolster our opinion with what is more broadly accepted than this merely particular instance.

Now, it is broadly accepted that older men have a certain gravitas, while older women remind us of our mothers. A man with a well-established literary reputation is reassuringly grand - his greying hair, even his occasional hesitations betoken a lifetime's serious thoughtfulness. A woman, however established her oeuvre, is possibly a bit fey, a trifle lightweight. The social conventions which even today encourage her to be hesitant and concessive in public tell heavily against her.

These are not judgments of writers' work. They are habitually unscrutinised bits of social baggage. When we do think about them, almost all of us are quick to insist that these are outmoded prejudices, and entirely irrelevant when we are trying to agree a ranking of this group of novelists, this collection of poets, or even (as in the case of the Whitbread) this shortlist of assorted poets, biographers and novelists.

Some people will retort that it is I who am prejudiced; that I wanted the woman to win. The truth is that all who judge literary prizes (as I did with the Whitbread novel category, but not the final award) genuinely believe that we are out to choose the very best book. But none of us, apparently, can resist the pressures which, time and again, mean that with candidates of closely comparable stature, it is the woman who loses.

Lisa Jardine