Column One: You can't judge a Booker by its coverage

Boyd Tonkin, our Literary Editor and a Booker judge, on the making of this year's shortlist
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The Independent Online
SO LET the brickbats (and maybe the odd bouquet) begin to fall. After 129 novels, five months of manic reading, dozens of late nights and too many lost weekends, the Booker Prize judges met yesterday to select the last shortlist of this millennium. I hope our choices will help the century's fiction go out with a bang.

The panel believes these six titles add up to a superb advertisement for British, Irish and Commonwealth writing. Well, we would say that - but the pangs of real grief at the loss of other good books suggested the year's harvest has been bounteous. In the end, the novels to emerge from about two dozen serious contenders were Disgrace by JM Coetzee, Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Headlong by Michael Frayn, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan, The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif and The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tibn.

After months of innocent enquiries (not to mention cunning banana-skins laid by newspaper gossip-sleuths), now is probably the time for a few frequently-asked Booker questions. First, do we read all the books? Alas, yes - and more than once with the confidential "long list" of 20 or so titles. What is true is that the 129-deep pile (84 men, 45 women) contained some pretty routine material from publishers who submit novels because they have the right. My favourite hopeful outsider this time was a little number entitled Negotiation Netball. Whizz through the blatant fun-runners, however, and you still have 100 proper contenders.

Does the procedure have an inbuilt bias in favour of famous names from major publishers? Not if the judges can help it. Our long list included a 25 per cent slice of first novels, and two entirely self-published works progressed to a fairly late stage. Previous winners fell by the wayside, as they invariably do. The Booker is not a long-service award, the equivalent of a retirement carriage-clock.

Do the judges promote "difficult" literary novels at the expense of more populist stuff? Well, our shortlist does feature the funniest novel of the year. However, most genre fiction sticks within limits it finds hard to transcend. And publishers do push "high-concept" novels at the judges. Still, I read powerful thrillers, ingenious fantasy - and an amazing debut that wraps 10 genres into one narrative. Look out in the future for David Mitchell, the promising author of Ghostwritten.

Does the best fiction now come from writers with roots in far-flung former colonies? Not always. Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie produced remarkable novels that fought ferociously for a place, but some hyped subcontinental titles disappointed. In contrast, an odd cluster of excellence yielded many strong novels from the North-west and the Borders.

Why do historical novels fare so well? They don't thrive especially on this shortlist, though period pieces abounded (33 of 129 titles). Yarns from the past have prevailed in many recent Bookers; publishers bet heavily on them. And British authors weary of middle-class realism often opt for remote settings. The Hampstead dinner-party novel looks extinct. For some young voices, Outer Mongolia now looks more familiar than outer suburbia.

Would I do it again? Not for a decade, and preferably for a more realistic fee than today'smodest honorarium.

Booker plc has a uniquely credible brand; they should be proud of it. Instead, a corporate chieftain has fretted about this "elitist" award. I wonder what sort of elite would willingly sign up for the gut-wrenching, brain-scrambling process the judges undergo.

Yet it remains a huge privilege. I came across 30-odd outstanding novels that cured me of fin-de-millennium blues about the future of fiction. Do read our shortlist, when you have the chance. It represents the cream of a very rich year.

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