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Cheltenham Festival: The literary lottery

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: The Booker Prize is maddening and arbitrary but entirely necessary, says Peter Straus
In the Spring 1998 issue of the Paris Review, the penultimate section is a question and answer on British writing. Several writers and critics were asked their views on the state of contemporary British literature. To the question: What is meant by success for a writer in Britain? Carmen Callil, chair of the 1996 Booker Prize answered: "a) esteem b) money c) sales." This seems an excellent shorthand for the effect of the Booker Prize itself. Indeed John Bayley, himself a chair in 1994 when James Kelman won with How Late It Was, How Late, commented: "Having been a Booker chair myself I don't see how the Booker Prize can ever get it right... no novelist can ever do more than please some of his readers for some of the time, and that is how it should be". A view underlined by Will Self, who commented on the judging process: "As one of the rules of the Booker Prize is that no book can be advanced for the shortlist unless one of the judges sincerely believes it will win the prize, it means that the shortlist is an inevitable dumbing down of the long list, and the winner a further senseless equivocation."

What is incontrovertible, however, is the effect of winning the prize on sales and the effect of shortlisting for raising authors' international profiles and selling their novels in many more languages and territories. Booker 30: A Celebration Of 30 Years Of The Booker Prize For Fiction 1969- 1998 has just been published in a healthy print run of 50,000 copies - midway between the sales of Anthony Burgess's 1980 runner-up Earthly Powers (40,000) and that year's winner, William Golding's Rites Of Passage (60,000).

This was the first year that the prize made a big impact on people's consciousness and sales, but the previous year could have been equally exciting if Nobel Prize winner Patrick White had not withdrawn his book The Twyborn Affair. Then it could have been a clash between a Nobel Prize winner and, in VS Naipaul, a previous Booker winner. As it was, 1981 saw the memorable clash between Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and DM Thomas's The White Hotel. Both books had already received an enthusiastic reception in America, that spilled over to England, where the shortlisting and attendant media razzmatazz led to both titles becoming bestsellers. It seems a clash of this kind, whether it is Keneally vs Boyd (1982), Coetzee vs Rushdie (1983) or Hollinghurst vs Kelman (1994), boosts sales of the shortlisted authors.

The Booker 30 illustrates these clashes and is full of fine anecdotes and unusual information. Martyn Goff's piece, especially, is required reading for those who want to know how the prize system works. Joseph Connolly encapsulates the controversy aroused by Booker selections in his essay "The Collectability of Booker Prize Winners", in which he called Keri Hulme "the joker in the pack - the most eccentric and criticised choice in Booker history".

Connolly's later assertion that the first printing of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was quietly remaindered is simply not true - the book quickly went through multiple printings. Ondaatje did jump from being a writer who sold 17,000 paperbacks (In The Skin Of The Lion) to 600,000 copies of The English Patient - probably a similar percentage change for both AS Byatt (from Possession to Sugar) and Ben Okri (from The Famished Road to Stars Of The New Curfew).

Perhaps the Booker Prize knew of its inherent appeal from the beginning, when John Updike, spending a season in England that year, attended the first award ceremony when P.H.Newby won for Something To Answer For and his prize money equalled what he would have got in about 10 years' novel writing. The win also led to another unusual event in his life - a phone call from his mother. Two years later VS Naipaul won with In A Free State. After the decision had been made one of the judges tried to reverse it, saying it was not a novel (which might have pleased the author, given his recent views on the prize).

In that year, perhaps one of the two most eminent in terms of judges, I believe a book called Fifth Business by Robertson Davies was eligible but did not make the shortlist. It had appeared earlier in America and had attracted the following pre-publication quotes from Saul Bellow and John Fowles: "Fifth Business pleased me very much. A good man wrote this book, an intelligent, mature man. He taught me a thing or two," wrote Bellow. "Fifth Business I really did read with great pleasure. It seems to me a minor classic of its kind - one of the rare books that might have been even better if it had been longer," said Fowles. Of course Bellow and Fowles were judges that year, so my only explanation of it is that perhaps the book was not even submitted by the publishers.

However I realise that advance quotes on books by Booker judges do not necessarily secure a shortlist position; this year, for example, one of the judges, Penelope Fitzgerald, is on the cover of Philip Hensher's Pleasured ("a most impressive and disturbing book"), Allan Sealy's The Everest Hotel ("Everyone loves novels about India, but this surely is an outstanding one").

In 1972 Susan Hill was shortlisted for a book she does not care for much, The Bird Of Night, but her feelings about it were mitigated by the views of the powerful trio of judges Cyril Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen and George Steiner. Having made a churlish acceptance speech in 1973, Jim Farrell wrote later that year to his ex-editor: "I still feel that if anything of mine survives it will be Troubles though, being more readable, no doubt The Siege Of Krishnapur was a better book to win the prize with. Believe me, I'm ready to be spoiled by success, but am not too sure how to go about it!" His death in 1979 was a great loss to literature.

The Booker shortlist is often attacked for excluding the wrong books. Sometimes this cannot be helped as authors such as John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe and, latterly, John Fowles have not allowed their books to be entered. But in excluding certain titles it has put the spotlight on them and encouraged extra sales of the missing book rather than the included six - after all it is easier to buy one than six. This is most evident in 1984 with Martin Amis's Money, in 1989 with Julian Barnes's A History Of The World In Ten And A Half Chapters, in 1991 with Angela Carter's Wise Children, in 1993 with Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, in 1995 with Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin and in 1997 with Ian McEwan's Enduring Love.

The effect of being shortlisted or winning makes no actual difference to the quality of the work in discussion. It is like suggesting the longest book ever on the shortlist (the 630 pages of Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger) is better than the shortest (the 110 pages of JL Carr's A Month In The Country). Many people believe that Graham Swift's best novel is Shuttlecock which was the unlucky seventh book in 1981 and just missed the shortlist; others believe it is Waterland and others Last Orders. What is certain is that one must respect in the words of Booker winner AS Byatt:

"It is silly to regard the prize as anything but a lottery, a good publicity stunt and a way of causing passionate discussion of literature." The Booker Prize has done a huge amount for both the marketing and selling of contemporary fiction, but it neither claims to be nor is definitive - after all, five literary B-format bestsellers of recent years - Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (the individual sales of which totalled in probability more than the sales of most Booker Prize winners total sales) - did not make the Booker shortlist at all.