Cultural Comment: Nervous moments in the prize war

I observed this year's Booker Prize with more than usual interest, and not just because it broke my five-year run of correctly predicted winners (like seemingly everybody else at the dinner, I'd tipped Beryl Bainbridge). This year I'm a Whitbread judge, and although the shortlist is not announced until this Friday (on BBC2's Bookworm programme, 7.30pm), by the time I sat down to my mozzarella and sundried-tomato starter in the Guildhall on Tuesday night, I already knew the identity of the winner of the Whitbread Novel Award.

Though the two prestigious prizes run virtually back-to-back, and you're always looking over your shoulder to see what the other lot are up to, there are significant differences between them. The great advantage of the Whitbread (you don't have to read all the books) is also its drawback. Famously, each Booker judge considers every novel submitted: this year 125 titles. Chairman of the judging panel Douglas Hurd seems to have found being Foreign Secretary a breeze compared with his Booker duties. "It's too much," he bleated in his speech, and went on to suggest a system more like that of the Whitbread.

We Whitbread judges (Alan Massie, Deborah Moggach and I) were required to read a comparatively manageable 43 novels each between 1 July and 11 September, when we each had to submit three books to the other judges. After a month in which to ponder each other's choices and re-evaluate our own, we met on 14 October to agree on the shortlist of three including the winner. I'm not sure what happens between October and 12 January, when the Novel Award is announced on BBC2 but the delay does give the unfortunate impression that the actual reading and judging of the books comes second to marketing and organising the prize.

Initially it was exciting receiving books in every post; but this soon became a guilty burden. The merciful organisers wrote to say that of course we need not feel obliged to finish everything. Publishers are limited to two choices for the Booker Prize; the Whitbread sets no limit, but I wish that publishers demonstrated less wild optimism and more realism in their bids for the novel of the year. The sentence "He knew then he had met the only woman he would ever love" fell with a heavy clang on my heart - and that from a prestigious publisher of contemporary fiction.

The Whitbread team are ferociously well organised, but some things slipped through their scanners. I had got half-way through one very good book and turned to the flyleaf to read about the author. I got on the phone instantly. "Er... it says here that this is a first novel." The publishers had submitted it for the wrong prize, with a lame "We thought you'd check." And one amazing novel on my personal shortlist was, to my anguish, rendered ineligible because the author, though British, is not currently living in Great Britain or Ireland.

Immediate problems presented themselves. Do you go for short and exquisite or huge, ambitious and flawed? Should - to take examples from the Booker list - novels which tackle contemporary life like England, England or the Booker winner Amsterdam be privileged over historical novels, like Beryl Bainbridge's small gem, Master Georgie? I concur with Douglas Hurd that there was, alas, no supreme masterpiece to make things easy. When you're obliged to winnow so severely, you have to ask tough questions about what you expect of, and admire most in a novel, and these are personal values, not necessarily shared by one's fellow judges.

It was odd to be going in to pick the Whitbread Novel of the Year with the shortlist of our heavyweight colleagues on the Booker hanging over our head. I had thought it would be impossible to reduce our unwieldy long list of 14 (we each kept ringing up begging to add more books) to just three, but it was an easy, if not speedy process. I suspect that Massie and I treated the reading like critics, gulping and spitting, while Moggach the novelist sipped like a true connoisseur. Three books kept their place on the table; one of those was deemed exceptional. Judging was civilised, and unanimous; but I can see - with 125 books on the table, and five personalities to squabble over them - how the Booker legend of rows and falling-outs developed.

I can give no tip-offs about the novels we chose. But I can confidently recommend the titles to be announced on Friday; and am glad to report that the nightmares about the ones that nearly made it have nearly gone away.

Robert Winder returns next week

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