You can't judge a book by its cover

It's Booker Prize night again, and, as usual, the knives are out (along with the forks, spoons and other glittering cutlery). But if you thought the life of a Booker judge was all high-minded debate and smart parties, think again. The novelist, psychologist and judge Salley Vickers reports from the literary treadmill
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The Independent Culture

This article will not tell you who is going to win the Man Booker Prize. That is not so much in the lap of the gods as in the unique combination of enthusiasm, critical acumen and sheer argumentative persistence that will combine to create its alchemy later today, when the panel of five judges meet in the recesses of the British Museum to reach their final decision. The "gold" that will emerge from that alchemical process, for one of the shortlisted writers, will be far more significant than the prize money – newly increased by the Man sponsors – of £50,000. For the winner, there will be an immediate and substantial leap in sales, not simply for this book but for all subsequent books. The impact on a writer's reputation and earnings is so enormous that the task of choosing would be inhibiting if one lingered too long over the consequences of that choice.

This article will not tell you who is going to win the Man Booker Prize. That is not so much in the lap of the gods as in the unique combination of enthusiasm, critical acumen and sheer argumentative persistence that will combine to create its alchemy later today, when the panel of five judges meet in the recesses of the British Museum to reach their final decision. The "gold" that will emerge from that alchemical process, for one of the shortlisted writers, will be far more significant than the prize money – newly increased by the Man sponsors – of £50,000. For the winner, there will be an immediate and substantial leap in sales, not simply for this book but for all subsequent books. The impact on a writer's reputation and earnings is so enormous that the task of choosing would be inhibiting if one lingered too long over the consequences of that choice.

So how is the choice made? What follows is purely my own impression of the process. I couldn't speak for any of my fellow judges, but this is not because there was any strife between us; on the contrary, my feeling is that it would be hard to find a group of people more ready and willing to work cheerfully and collegiately. That makes us sound rather an anodyne bunch – which would also be misleading. There were tough disagreements, but never a row; there were fierce prejudices for and against books, but neither nepotism nor sycophancy nor mud-slinging. I never heard anyone slag off an author, however little a book might have been to their taste; there were passionate pleas, as a consequence of which minds, formerly resolute, were changed. (It was refreshing to see how often that happened.) And at all times there was a robust and lively exchange of views, aided by e-mail.

In fact, I would not want to have judged the prize without e-mail. The official meetings are few, and the chance to e-mail a colleague and say: "Why does she buy chicken on p73 and then cook lamb on p82?" or "What does 'Greek' in this context mean?" (apparently it means anal sex – my education was greatly advanced by the submissions), or just: "What the hell is supposed to be happening on p294 – I'm lost?' is a relief. It makes the reading process a shared one, not merely a lonely slog.

There were certainly times, for me at least, when slog is what it felt like. Reading 132 books is a huge load and, rather like having children, one I might never have undertaken if I had had any idea in advance what it was going to entail. Though, as with children, I would also not have forgone the experience – so my innocence was fortunate. Luckily for me, I am a quick reader and can absorb a book in a night. Some days, with time on my hands, I read two books.

It was an added piece of luck that during the judging period I was already committed to two long author tours, the first to Canada and the United States. My abiding memory of this is sitting peaceably in airport lounges, where new security measures require check-in at least two hours in advance of a flight, with a large coffee to hand, reading, reading, reading, and then, when I finished a book and had made my notes in my "Booker" notebook, graciously bestowing it – the book, not my notebook – on a startled fellow-traveller. To ensure I kept up with my reading programme, I had sent on parcels of books ahead of me. The idea was to make sure I had completed the last batch before catching up with the next at my latest point of arrival. Once read, to lug a book, however praiseworthy or enjoyable, across the US and Canada was clearly not sensible. I spent pleasurable times at airports or in planes assessing where I would donate my completed reads. Sometimes, in a benevolent mood, I would try to match the book to a potential reader – "She looks an Anita Brookner type" or "He might go for Michael Frayn". Sometimes I was naughty and tried for a bit of consciousness-raising: "She could do with a bit of Howard Jacobson." (I still wonder what the very respectable blue-rinsed lady from Vermont made of Who's Sorry Now?; she accepted it gratefully.)

In Canada I actually "found" for myself one of the books on our shortlist. Booksellers will often express thanks for an author event by offering a choice of book from their store. In remote Winnipeg, seduced by the promise of a Bengal tiger as a principal character, I picked Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and was almost disappointed to find when I returned home that it had since been officially submitted by Canongate, its publisher. I thought I had discovered it!

By the time of my Australian tour we had reduced the books to the longlist. Our chair – the historian Lisa Jardine – was kind but strict. "I expect every one of you to re-read every book – and you will be tested!" No one defies Lisa. Off I dutifully set to the Antipodes with 20 volumes bulging in my suitcase. Where previously it was airports, in Australia it was room service I came to associate with books. Late at night in my high-rise hotel, I read over prawn sandwiches and sauvignon blanc. In the mornings, I read in bed, with strong coffee and muesli (which the Australians for some reason do particularly well). I left a vivid literary trail behind me – Linda Grant in Melbourne, William Boyd in Sydney, John Banville in Brisbane. Author tours can be lonely, and depleting, and several books became companions. Carol Shields' Unless, a subtle exploration of contemporary goodness, and William Trevor's mythic The Story of Lucy Gault, both quiet, beautifully written books, were welcome respites from roaring air conditioning and wall-to-wall carpet. Philip Hensher's intellectually impressive The Mulberry Empire sustained me on the five-hour flight across the continent. To the Last City, Colin Thubron's dark, precise account of journeying in Peru, mesmerised me when I reached Perth. I kept the Tim Winton for the remote monastery in his native Western Australia, where I was invited at the end of my stay. The monks took me out into the bush to see orchids and kangaroos. And they showed me the Christmas tree, which blooms a glorious orange-gold in the season of Christmastide – a parasite, it initially requires another, rooted, tree for host, but in time grows its own roots and independence. As I sat in the sunlit monastery courtyard, re-reading Dirt Music to the caw of cockatoos, suddenly the book's final brave epiphany made perfect sense. Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, about a Parsi family, distracted me comfortably on the long flight home.

The process of first assessing, and then ranking, such a wide range of subjects and styles is a mysterious as well as a daunting one. Much has been made of the alleged call from this year's judging panel to "lower" the Booker tone. But I never heard any judge suggest for a second that there should be any drop in standards, or that serious literary books should be relegated. The debate was – and should be – what is meant by "serious". It is possible – I would say desirable – to be both popular and profound. Homer was, Shakespeare was, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Thackeray and Dickens were. None of these writers would have survived in their time, never mind posterity, had they not had and held the popular ear. Of course, just as there will always be books that are popular but will never be remarkable, there will also always be remarkable books that will never be popular, and in those cases popularity should not be any criterion for choice; but too many of the books we read appeared to have been entered not on the basis of the quality of the work, but on some preconception of how a "Man Booker book" should read. Very often, I suspect, this was a decision made at the wrong level; not by the editorial floor – which, sadly, has lost power in recent years, for which publishing, and writing, is the poorer – but by some vague corporate concept of what might find favour. The result leads to lifelessness – a kind of tired political correctness where assumptions are made about what is or isn't "literary", and where, for example, understatement and irony and subversiveness are passed over in favour of unfathomable prose and fashionable philosophy.

My own particular complaint is that there is a current notion of "realism", which is not "real" at all but something which used to be called, more accurately, naturalism. Contemporary "realism" usually translates as dismal dissatisfaction, which is no more unsentimental a take on life than its opposite. Likewise, an unhappy ending is not more "real" than a happy one – both are artistic constructs, and thus comments on life rather than the thing itself.

And sex, too, though you wouldn't think it from reading some of the submissions, is not the only reality. Tossing in "language" and graphic sex scenes is not enough to ensure authenticity. As I found myself saying, rather wearily, at one meeting: "Goodness is as 'real' as a blow job..." I would add that it is also rarer, and arguably therefore more interesting to read about. And humour... David Baddiel and I might disagree over what we find funny, but I am with him 100 per cent on the need to take humour seriously. Laughter is as much the province of truth as tears or anger, and has, and should be seen to have, an honoured place in any worthwhile culture's literature.

So how do we, the judges, make the hard decision between the six excellent contenders on the shortlist, which we arrived at amid much heated talk, anguish and indeed laughter? One begins to feel a certain proprietorial interest in all the books, even those one didn't start out supporting. Thanks to some skilful chairing, the shortlist was very much "ours", not an uneasy medley of individual choices, and one – I believe I speak for all the judges – we all ended by feeling proud of. A list that includes the 36-year-old Sarah Waters' sparkling writing and the elegiac 74-year-old William Trevor's cannot be accused of either highbrow stuffiness or ephemeral modishness. And, in the final alchemy, the crucial ingredient will be one which ensures that no book could ever be a sure-fire cert to win, nor any meeting of five independent-minded people will have a predictable outcome. It will not be any of the judges (hotly and avidly as I know we will debate tonight), it will be luck – that mercurial factor which plays a part in the drama of all writing careers – that makes the final choice for the Man Booker Prize.

Salley Vickers is the author of 'Miss Garnet's Angel', published by HarperCollins and 'Instances of the Number 3', published by Fourth Estate. The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced tonight on BBC2 at 10pm

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