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

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices