A spectacle for sadists

Beyond the shortlist: Michÿle Roberts looks back at her stint as a Booker judge and has one or two regrets
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The Independent Culture

Good writing by its very nature questions the status quo, whether this be New Labour or Tory or white-feminist. That's why reading and writing literature always has to be defended. They are subversive acts. We in Britain live in hard times, unfortunately, when the imagination is often derided as a girly luxury or a childish self-indulgence, the fantasies of politicians, tabloid hacks and marketing persons to be preferred to those of novelists, a time when books are deemed much less important than computers, when even British Council libraries abroad are being closed down.

Good writing by its very nature questions the status quo, whether this be New Labour or Tory or white-feminist. That's why reading and writing literature always has to be defended. They are subversive acts. We in Britain live in hard times, unfortunately, when the imagination is often derided as a girly luxury or a childish self-indulgence, the fantasies of politicians, tabloid hacks and marketing persons to be preferred to those of novelists, a time when books are deemed much less important than computers, when even British Council libraries abroad are being closed down.

I meet men every week who boast that they never make time to read novels, though they might annually buy one for the aeroplane, or for the wife. Since for me reading fiction is a major necessity, a way of life, one of the greatest pleasures in existence, I was happy when invited to be a Booker judge this year, along with Kenneth Baker, Philip Hensher, Kate Summerscale and Rory Watson. I even got paid for doing it.

Novels arrived as gifts. Box after box of them poured in. Over the summer they flourished into stalagmite piles on the floor, adorned with yellow stickers covered in scribbled comments. I shall never forget the delight of staying up late, night after night, to finish novels I particularly enjoyed and had to read at a single sitting. Then it would be three in the morning, the fire dead and cold; I'd be yawning and shivering, completely transported into someone else's universe.

One of the other judges remarked in an off-the-cuff, post-prandial moment, that novelists write in order to flatter themselves. I don't think that's true. A good writer provokes an unsettling conversation with the reader, seduces her with delight, shocks her with seeming truth, challenges her to change her view of the world. The bombastic, egotistical or self-pitying leaves us cold. I do think that when you write a novel properly and honestly (that's to say imaginatively) you often find out things about yourself you didn't know before; but they can be painful and scary, not flattering at all.

The arduous aspect of the Booker job was not reading a novel a day, which I consider normal, but worrying about doing the authors justice. When someone's given several years of her life to making a piece of art, it feels terrible to lay it aside and say no. (Okay – there were a few novels I happily hurled across the room.) The Booker greatly raised its public profile once the award ceremony went on TV, which was good for book sales, but for the authors this can feel like being thrown to the lions, otherwise known as the media feeding-frenzy: reading transformed into a spectator sport.

Most writers, not on monthly salaries like the bureaucrats who try to control their lives, are poor, contrary to the spiteful gossip endlessly recycled by lazy journalists. They welcome prize money, but it's very painful to know you've been entered for a big prize and then discover you've not made the shortlist. Even worse, perhaps, to be shortlisted, go to the prize-winning dinner and not know whether you've won or not, and have to be gallant to camera. Writers should not be made into a spectacle for sadists.

The Booker has been attacked for being a corrupt stitch-up, but I think the truth is less glamorous and more truly political. A committee of six represents six different viewpoints. Some marvellous books are bound to slip through that net. Also, we all bring to the judging process our own unconscious preferences and dislikes, perhaps not always so unconscious, which may screen out our experimenting with something very different. We may be scared to challenge our own notions of what literary excellence is. These are, of course, inflected by what's formed us as readers. Enter issues of gender, race and class. Reactionary to pretend they don't exist.

I raised the question of why only a third of novels submitted by publishers were by women. When did you last see a Booker shortlist dominated by women's novels? You didn't. Women go on being the exceptions who prove the old-fashioned rule that male-defined genius tends, surprise surprise, to be male. Just as ignorant arts journalists continually peddle the notion that all our best writers are male (neat sexist niche reserved for Beryl Bainbridge as bridesmaid), just as commentators this year, pre-longlist, boringly talked of their hopes for a war between the Titans of Rushdie and Hornby, so I thought some of us on the panel had to dismantle some cultural prejudices about novels coming from Africa and India. Did we really know how to read them well?

Many of the novels we admired concerned war. On one level this is hardly surprising, given that the world is currently torn apart by war as seemingly never before. On another, it was intriguing that the wars explored were not always contemporary ones. This must have something to do with the question children classically ask their parents: where did I come from? What made me? They may receive answers to do with storks, or God, or sex. The child grown into an adult hungers for additional information, for responses that touch on the shaping powers of culture and history. She wants to learn who her parents were before they had children. She receives their memories as treasures. She may find they inspire a novel.

Several novelists summoned the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary people who lived, fought and died in it. We've had the officers' perspective, the upper-class perspective, for so long; it's a huge relief to hear from the troops, transformed from gallant, wisecracking Tommies into complex flesh-and-blood beings with intellects and souls. Derek Beaven produced a beautiful meditation on the moral and sexual dilemmas thrown up by war. If the Invader Comes (Fourth Estate £15.99) moves between Malaysia and East London, describes the love affair between Vic Warren and Clarice Pike, Vic's difficulties with his troubled wife Phyllis, his manipulation and bullying by her criminal friends, his subsequent punishment and imprisonment, his anguished love for his small son Jack. Blitzed landscapes are powerfully evoked, mirroring Vic's internal struggles as he tries to work out what it means to be a man and love a woman. The willingness to place masculinity as both problem and solution made this book outstanding. Helen Dunmore also chose a gendered appreciation of war's effects, turning to the Leningrad siege to concentrate on how desperate women foraged to feed their starving families and the lengths to which they were prepared to go. Her characters are not realistic so much as heroic; idealised figures out of Brecht. The Siege (Viking £16.99) is very much a poet's novel, rich with precise, exquisite evocations of the cut-off, snow-deadened city. Dunmore has written before about cold and ice, which are clearly important themes for her, but here she really makes us feel their impact. At the heart of her book are stunning, paradoxically sensual, descriptions of hunger.

Stevie Davies's The Element of Water (Women's Press £9.99) explored the impact of war trauma on memory and personality and post-war possibilities of rebuilding love. Marina Warner's The Leto Bundle (Chatto £16.99) looked at the wreckage produced by war in terms of refugees. Her Leto is a mythic figure whom we track across history like some hunted quarry in a thriller. Starting off as a museum mummy in a gold cartonnage mask, seeming as miraculous as a goddess, she erupts into a whirlwind story fleeing through the centuries. She leaves traces of her passage in ancient texts, oral legends, personal memories, and finally debouches into today's society, as a servant in the household of a rock singer, searching for her lost child.

For that fine writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, the refugee is a precisely contemporary figure produced by centuries of colonial exploitation. In By the Sea (Bloomsbury £16.99), Saleh Omar is an asylum seeker who arrives at Gatwick airport and is put into digs so filthy he has to kneel on a clean towel to claim some space. Latif Mahmud, on the other hand, is a voluntary exile, with painful memories of his lost paradise, Zanzibar. The two men's stories collide, intertwine, unravel, to explosive effect. As always with Gurnah's writing, you relish his juxtapositions of beauty and bitterness, political edge and personal pain, betrayal and resilience. James Kelman's troubling text, Translated Accounts (Secker £15.99), forces the reader to try and understand what it might be like to be a refugee whose utterances are provoked, controlled, mistranslated and misheard by the officials handling the case. How do you speak to the authorities if you have been tortured? Can you?

The struggle to find adequate language is at the heart of the novel-writing process. Perhaps if our politicians read more novels they would have livelier imaginations and more compassion, would wage fewer wars. Here's to the saving power of books.

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