On Saturday night, just as the BBC announced the top 21 choices in its Big Read jamboree, I witnessed what can happen when much-loved books come under cool-eyed scrutiny. At the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, my fellow-panellists and I were arguing over an imaginary "Man Booker" shortlist made up of Enduring Love, A Suitable Boy, London Fields, Birdsong and Any Human Heart. At the outset, an audience vote revealed an eager legion of Birdsong supporters. Simon Hoggart spoke movingly in defence of Sebastian Faulks's cherished Great War epic (also a Big Read finalist). It looked like a shoo-in.
Then something curious took place. Under what I felt was fairly light small-arms fire from the rest of the panel, who had various reservations about the novel's structure and sentiment, the Birdsong contingent seemed to drop away like a trapped battalion on the first day of the Somme. A later vote showed almost no partisans left. Victory duly went to A Suitable Boy - thanks in large measure to the sparkling advocacy of Claire Tomalin.
So I would not yet place bets on the outcome of the Big Read poll. In culture, as increasingly in politics, allegiances may be fervent but shallow. Debate can swiftly re-direct our not-so-enduring loves. The bookies, who first picked Pride and Prejudice as favourite, rapidly changed tack when they felt the weight of fan cash behind The Lord of the Rings. Yet even Tolkien looks vulnerable to me.
Of course, the Big Read is a silly and vulgar spectacle. As is most of publishing. After wincing at a few of the final 21 (The Hitchhiker's Guide...? Gone with the Wind?), I settled into a mood of (Samuel) Johnsonian resignation. In the arts, the follies of popular taste and the fads of the market-place have never approached the toxic idiocies of private plutocracy or state bureaucracy. For better or worse, fiction has a vast buying public whose preferences make a difference; visual art, for instance, certainly does not. If you despair of the Big Read punters, imagine a literary scene in which bookish versions of Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota dictated everything you read.
In any case, the BBC run-off embraces classics such as Wuthering Heights and Nineteen Eighty-Four, War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Jane Eyre. Compared to the film and music surveys that routinely place Titanic and Robbie Williams at the summit of their arts, many of the Big Read results look positively Leavisite. And this comes after a decade in which BBC television itself has scandalously ignored books.
As the contest unfolds, with celebrity champions for each novel, it will be worth watching for any little tilts and skews the BBC inserts. These days, Auntie vaunts her populism but still keeps the tools of the school-marm handy. So expect discreet guidance. The Lord of the Rings will have prime-time survivalist Ray Mears as its advocate; while Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has the Cold Feet actor Fay Ripley. In contrast, War and Peace will profit from Simon Schama's generalship; Pride and Prejudice enjoys multi-talented Meera Syal; Great Expectations has the regal gravitas of David Dimbleby. On the whole, heavyweight titles have landed heavyweight presenters. Overtly, the Big Read aims to reflect mass taste; covertly, perhaps the BBC wishes to correct it. And why not?
The roster of presenters also holds gloomy news for admirers of Sebastian Faulks. As its "celebrity" brief, Birdsong has secured the services of William Hague. At least it was spared Iain Duncan Smith.