Booker equality - it's not a mirage

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The Independent Culture

It won't be long before the press pretends to hear the first bat-squeaks of gossip from the judges of the Booker Prize. Most of these "leaks" will simply be concocted in the office on a slow afternoon. In 1999, our very first collective soundings had revealed the strong impact made by the eventual winner, Disgrace. Yet Coetzee featured nowhere in those kite-flying rumours. Rather, they told all about a non-existent showdown between Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie.

It won't be long before the press pretends to hear the first bat-squeaks of gossip from the judges of the Booker Prize. Most of these "leaks" will simply be concocted in the office on a slow afternoon. In 1999, our very first collective soundings had revealed the strong impact made by the eventual winner, Disgrace. Yet Coetzee featured nowhere in those kite-flying rumours. Rather, they told all about a non-existent showdown between Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie.

So no red-hot tips from this column - at least, not for a while. Instead, I simply hope the panel keeps up the admirable Booker tradition of resisting corporate hype and taking seriously the finest novels submitted by small firms. Last year, one virtually self-published work reached the last dozen or so titles on our table: Bandula Chandraratna's tender and haunting desert tragedy, Mirage. I'm delighted that Phoenix House has now re-issued Mirage in a handsome new edition (£6.99).

Even the best of small-press fiction will now have trouble finding proper distribution - especially as Waterstone's often refuses to see reps. So the idea that companies with clout can pick up the odd kitchen-table triumph, and transmit it to a wider readership, may have a future. As for the dream of sudden fame by posting your latest masterpiece on the Web and soliciting subscriptions: well, unless you happen to be a 6'4" multi-millionaire from Maine - just get real.

In 1998, one tiny outfit did make the Booker shortlist: Dewi Lewis Publishing of Stockport, with Martin Booth's novel of the Soviet Gulag and its aftermath, The Industry of Souls. This year, Dewi Lewis has another singular work of fiction: Sue Hubbard's Depth of Field (£8.99), not so much a conventional novel as a bleak but intensely lyrical monologue of love and its loss, in which a forsaken photographer finds solace in the tarnished beauties and occluded histories of London's East End.

Natural bullies, the giant sharks of publishing detest the fact that minnows can compete for the Booker on almost equal terms. This year, a rule-change will favour the big guns: formerly shortlisted authors, as well as former winners, can be submitted in addition to the usual two books per imprint. Yet the little guys, thankfully, still enjoy the same two shots. It's perfectly feasible that, some day, one of them will hit not just the inner ring, but the bull's-eye itself.

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