Sir Howard Davies: Throw the book at him

Daggers have been drawn and the backbiting has begun. Ciar Byrne meets the man who is leading the judges of the Man Booker Prize, and discovers that he's not afraid to speak his mind
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Next week, the Man Booker judges meet for a final dinner at Sir Howard Davies' house. It will be their last meeting before the day of the Booker Prize itself, on 16 October, when in the space of a few hours, they will be forced to come up with a winner for the most prestigious literary award in the calendar. And this time, he might even cook for them.

At their first informal dinner, Sir Howard's wife cooked. At a second gathering, they ordered food in. Sir Howard is a busy man, currently overseeing Freshers' Week at the London School of Economics, of which he is director, as well as chairing the panel of Booker judges.

Imagine the scene: Sir Howard, the actress Imogen Stubbs, Giles Foden, the obligatory contemporary novelist without a book on this year's list of entries, the poet Wendy Cope and the academic and critic Ruth Scurr, engaged in impassioned literary conversation over steaming plates of something to ward off the autumn damp.

"There's been some quite striking diversity of views," Sir Howard admits. But he insists that discussions have so far been "very agreeable. They have been very cheerful. Everybody listens to everybody else. We haven't got two people who don't like each other or won't listen to each other".

The judges were able to agree quite easily on about half of the long list but struggled with the last four or five books on it, and struggled with the last two or three on the short list. The former director general of the CBI and deputy-governor of the Bank of England was forced to devise "ingenious voting systems" to choose between the half-dozen books that were equally strongly advocated, but they still ended up with a tie.

Sir Howard is currently in the middle of his third reading of the six books on the short list, a process that is making him decidedly nervous. "One or two, when I read them a second time, came apart in my hands. One of the things I'm nervous about is the third reading. How good would Middlemarch be if you read it three times in three months? Might you find that none of them is any good?"

Chairing the Booker prize involves an awful lot of reading. Being of "a statistical bent", Sir Howard has computed that the 110 entries constituted 35,000 pages. On top of that, he has reread the long list and is now rereading the short list for the second time, as well as reading as many as possible of the short-listed authors' previous works.

In a recent interview, he estimated that he reads about 80 pages an hour, a comment that incurred the wrath of Jeanette Winterson, whose latest book The Stone Gods did not make the long list. "If you've got some bloody idiot who thinks it's great to read at 80 pages an hour when it's not The Da Vinci Code, you're doomed," said Winterson in an interview with The Guardian.

Sir Howard is not impressed. "I thought that was offensive. Winterson was unhappy she wasn't on the list. I read Jeanette Winterson's [book] quite quickly. It's a complete failure as a novel in my view. If you really like a book, you're slower on it. Someone just coming out and saying you're a bloody idiot; I was unimpressed and unapologetic. If you want to have judges who do something else with their lives, what else are you going to do?"

To fit in all the reading, Sir Howard has stopped reviewing books and has not watched television or been to see a film since the process began. He spent his annual holiday sitting in the garden of a rented house in France poring over novels, and he declines to watch the in-flight movies on plane journeys. His wife even drives him to the country at the weekend, so that he can sit and read in the car.

Booker chairs have often been chosen from outside the literary world – from politicians Chris Smith, Kenneth Baker and Michael Foot to the former Granada Television chairman Sir Denis Forman. But Sir Howard has been a keen book reviewer, writing for the Literary Review until the late Auberon Waugh took him for a drink and said: "I've noticed that you haven't liked a novel for about 18 months."

Of this year's prize, he insists: "I genuinely don't know what the outcome is going to be." But he adds: "There are three or four on the short list I'd be happy to see as the winner. I've not seen my role as judge to make my own selection and push it through, I've seen my role as to try to steer my group towards a conclusion."

Bookmakers have tipped Mister Pip by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones to win, but Sir Howard pronounces himself baffled. "I've been surprised by the interest shown by the bookmakers. I wonder what they know about it and how much they have riding on it," he says.

In his third reading of Jones's novel – which tells the tale of a girl trapped in the middle of a civil war on an island in Papua New Guinea, who finds solace in Dickens's Bleak House – Sir Howard has focused on the criticism made by some reviewers that "it has a slightly odd ending".

He says: "The rest of the book, you're taken into this very closed environment with the threat of the jungle and violence. As soon as Matilda escapes, all that pressure is released and yet you then have these extra chapters and a number of people have said they don't really work."

While the outside world questioned whether, at a mere 166 pages, Ian McEwan's latest novel On Chesil Beach is long enough to qualify for the Booker, the judges posed a different set of questions about the book – which revolves around a young couple on their wedding night in the early 1960s, driven apart by the bride's abhorrence of sex.

"We felt a legalistic approach was not sensible," says Sir Howard. "The question is: is it a satisfying piece of fiction; is there sufficient explanation of why people are in this predicament; is there a believable resolution? In short stories it is legitimate just to stop, whereas novels do include some developmental conclusion of characters. The question we've asked is: is it fully developed? Do you believe fully in why she is how she is about sex, or is it just a kind of given?"

In contrast, Sir Howard's concern about the longest novel on the short list, Nicola Barker's Darkmans, is whether the length is justified. Set in modern-day Ashford, Kent, the novel includes meetings in motorway cafés and hospital laundries, a young boy who is building an exact replica of the cathedral in Albi in France out of matchsticks, and Edward IV's court jester John Scogin.

"People were pretty excited by it. She's a very compelling voice. There's no doubt that she's got real talent. The question is whether this book is fully formed. Does it come across as a satisfying fiction or is it a Catherine wheel of a book that spins off in different directions?"

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the perfect antidote to Sir Howard's recent complaint that not enough fiction deals with business. He is clearly delighted by the references to management consultants McKinsey in the novel, for which both he and Hamid have worked. "I had rather a laugh of recognition at the McKinsey approach to evaluating people and analysing companies. The other [judges] didn't really have that background."

But he is also aware that some people feel the book is "weighed down by heavy-handed symbolism" – the Pakistani narrator is educated at an Ivy League college and falls in love with a girl called Erica, who has been identified as Am-erica, obsessed with her dead boyfriend Chris (topher Columbus), "constantly embracing her origins and not able to form a relationship with anybody else".

Animal's People by Indra Sinha has sold fewer copies than any other title on the short list, but it is the one that all the judges "jumped at", Sir Howard says. "That was one that sailed through the long list and the short list. It's a very powerful creation." In Sinha's novel, the Bhopal chemical disaster is seen through the eyes of a disfigured young man. The concern, Sir Howard says, is: "Is he sufficiently distanced from it?"

Then there is The Gathering, by Anne Enright, about an Irishwoman thrown into a midlife crisis by the death of her brother. The New York Times raved about it, and Sir Howard thinks it is a "nice, wry, self-aware, well-constructed book", but, he asks: "Just how generalisable is this experience?"

These are the meaty questions the judges must address over Sir Howard's home cooking.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October