The Judges' verdict: `I work it out to be pounds 2.70 an hour'

PRESENT AND former judges of the Booker Prize agreed that reading the 120 or so titles required to compile a shortlist for the award was an experience they would never wish to repeat.

"I work it out to be pounds 2.70 an hour we're getting paid," said the academic John Sutherland, one of this year's judges. "They call it an honorarium, but that's just another word for a pittance. The worst thing is that either you're not doing your job properly, in which case you feel guilty, or you're not doing your Booker reading properly, which also makes you feel guilty. It's a real Catch-22."

The author Blake Morrison, a judge in 1988, was disappointed to discover no one tried to bribe him. "I suppose you hope for hampers from remote parts," he said. "My only real period when I could devote to reading was on holiday. I had to read two books a day and that was supposed to be my holiday with my young children. I basically read the more promising ones in the mornings and later read the ones that didn't appeal. Eventually you pray for bad books so you can dispose of them quickly. After about 30 pages you know if you've got something that can be shortlisted. If not, you can speed through them."

But Ian Jack, editor of Granta and a judge in 1996, thought pounds 3,000 a respectable sum. "It seemed quite generous to me. But it is an awful lot of books. It's okay if you can get a lot away from January or February, but in fact a lot of eligible books are not published until the summer and you find yourself with a lot of last-minute reading to do."

A consequence of slogging through Booker submissions is that people who ordinarily love books are put off them. "I tried not to hate books," said Morrison. "But I know many judges never want read a word of fiction again. It's not that there are so many terrible books, just so many mediocre ones."

Jack agrees. "Much of the pleasure of reading disappeared for a year or so after my judging stint, but it's not that onerous a task. I mean, for goodness' sake, it's not coal mining."

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