Why Amis's worst book may be his best hope of winning that elusive literary prize

His novel 'Yellow Dog' was panned by critics and derided by his peers. But the writer could be in line for his first major award with the book's shortlisting by the WH Smith judges. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent Culture

It has been dismissed as his worst ever novel, and was greeted with near universal derision when it was published. But Martin Amis may still have the last laugh. His book Yellow Dog is today shortlisted for the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award, giving him his best chance yet of winning his first major literary prize.

Amis, 54, is one of Britain's most acclaimed authors. But although his three-decade career has brought him fame and riches, and removed the shadow of his famous literary father Kingsley, awards have consistently eluded him.

The man who brought us the decade-defining Money, about 1980s greed, The Rachel Papers and London Fields, has yet to be acknowledged with a career-topping award. His last brush with prize success was in 1974 when he took the Somerset Maugham Award for young writers at the outset of his career. But since then his one and only Booker nomination, for Time's Arrow in 1991, was beaten by Ben Okri's The Famished Road, and The Information, his shot at the Whitbread Novel Award in 1995, lost out to The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie.

Yellow Dog, a dark comedy dealing with shifting moral values and masculinity, was dismissed as a contender for last year's Man Booker Prize in a matter of seconds.

The novel achieved notoriety shortly before its release when the novelist Tibor Fischer, a long-time admirer of Amis's work, was unflinchingly savage in delivering his verdict on the book.

"Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad," he wrote. "I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page). It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."

But now Amis finds himself up for an award whose past winners have included John Fowles, Doris Lessing, Laurie Lee and the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. His fate now lies in the hands of a six-strong panel of judges. The fact that he has never won an award is likely to count heavily in his favour if the judges dispense with cold objectivity and display any kind of sentimentality.

After learning of the book's inclusion on the WH Smith shortlist, Fischer said: "Good luck to him. I have had my say. If people like it then good luck to them."

Amis, who keeps a flat in Primrose Hill, north London, was unavailable for comment last night and is thought to be staying at his second home near the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, which was designed by the uncle of his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca.

He will be up against fairly stiff competition. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's word-of-mouth best-seller about a boy with Asperger's Syndrome which scooped the Whitbread Book of the Year, will be the strongest contender on the shortlist of five. The other books shortlisted are the little-known A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray, a debut short story collection by a doctor turned writer; the well-received Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson, about the impact of murder on a quiet seaside town; and Richard Powers's The Time of our Singing, an examination of race issues in the US. The winner is announced on 16 March and receives £5,000.

Amis's yarn weaves several inter-related plots - a writer, Xan Meo, gets a blow to the head and suffers a personality change that results in sexual feelings towards his young daughter; a king is blackmailed over a naked film of his daughter; and a sleazy journalist writes smut to offset his own sexual inadequacies. Booker judge DJ Taylor, whose Orwell: The Life took the Whitbread biography prize last month, said: "I tried personally very hard to keep it [Yellow Dog] off the Booker longlist and didn't succeed. But it didn't really occupy the judges very long to knock him off the shortlist - about 10 seconds.

"I've followed his career from the outset: he's the modern British novelist I always read when he has something new but this was so far away from his best," Taylor said. "He has a supernatural grasp of how language works, but doesn't seem to care about what makes a novel, such as plot and pace. It is marvellous to win literary prizes but it really is a lottery."

Independent on Sunday literary editor Suzi Feay commented: "No author is immune to the prospect of a glittering prize, but the man who wasn't even Booker-shortlisted for Money - a modern masterpiece, it now seems obvious - can afford a touch of weary disdain about this one.

"He'll win over Mark Haddon's charming, modish novel only if the judges are persuaded to treat the prize as some sort of lifetime award. Yellow Dog didn't entirely deserve its gloating bad reviews, but it is a sad falling-off when compared to his previous work."

While judging panels are generally chosen from scratch each year, the WH Smith panel includes three friends who have already presided over Donna Tartt's 2003 win for The Little Friend and Ian McEwan's Atonement the previous year.

Gillian Neale and Selina Roberts, both 41, and Susan Williams, 43, belong to a south-west London book group and won their places on the judging panel in a competition, writing a 150-word review. They will sit alongside broadcaster Mark Lawson and writers Philip Ziegler and Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Tony Cooke, of the WH Smith awards team, said: "In addition to judges who are professional journalists and critics, we feel it is important to take into account how 'real' people relate to books."

The book

The King of England, Henry IX, meets his Chinese lover, He Zizhen...

Then came He ... "May I tell you a secret?" she said in her accentless English, joining him as he smoked a cigar on a balcony of the Chinese Embassy in Paris ... His universe was a gallery of strangers, and here was someone doubly other: the lavish black quiff, the fractional asymmetry of her lidless eyes ... World-historical beauties (women perpetually dogged by tearful trillionaires) had come at him fairly steadily during the past twelve months. Many talented tongues had scoured - had practically drained - the royal ear. And the King might have flinched but he always leant willingly into it, hoping for an answer in himself, which never came ... He Zizhen stood on tiptoe. Then there was contact. It seemed as if a butterfly had taken up residence in his tympanum - no, make that two butterflies; and they were mating.

What they said

Liz Jensen, The Independent: "He has fired off an exquisitely written, 100-carat dud, so unfocused, so militantly chaotic."

Tibor Fischer, Daily Telegraph (pictured left): "I'll be sending Louis [de Bernières] an authorisation to shoot me if I ever produce anything like Yellow Dog."

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Observer: "Your first reaction on reading a novel as mind-tinglingly good is not so much admiration as a grateful despair."

Alan Hollinghurst, The Guardian: "Everything Amis writes is highly structured, but Yellow Dog gives signs of bristling organisation."