Jill Paton Walsh, known as a children's author, published her own novel under the inscription Green Bay Publishing from her Cambridge home after failing to interest any of the big-name publishing houses. She uses her tiny imprint to send Christmas cards to friends, and to publish the odd specialist criticism works.
Her book, described as a metaphor for lapsed faith, is an allegorical fable in which an atheist is washed ashore on an imaginary island in the 15th century.
Ms Paton Walsh said she was stunned and delighted, though she had been 'very miserable' when her book had been rejected by 14 publishers. However, it was published and reprinted in America, and this encouraged her to do it herself in Britain. It was not technically vanity publishing, she said. 'It's not a question of vanity, it's a question of pride. It's clear that people who choose and review books have a different value set from those who publish them.'
The shortlist of six announced by the judges yesterday caps a controversial week for the prize by being one of the more obscure lists in the prize's 25-year history. Novels by previous Booker winners Margaret Attwood, Kingsley Amis, V S Naipaul, Peter Carey, Anita Brookner and Nadine Gordimer have failed to make the list.
Professor John Bayley, chairman of the judges, said: 'We were looking for books which were works of artistry in their own right, and were delighted to find there was a number of them. There was a great deal of passionate debate about some of the titles and a number of excellent novels had to be left off the shortlist.'
Even for a prize which by accident or design seems to court controversy, this year's offstage rumblings have been unusually diverting. First, one of the judges, the reviewer James Wood, failed to mention that his wife had written one of the novels discussed at one point by the judges. Then Professor Bayley said in an interview that new fiction was 'at best ambitious and at worst pretentious . . . the cosy idea of curling up with a novel has gone'.
Despite that less than enthusiastic commendation for contemporary fiction, the six novelists can now be assured of publicity and promotion of their work. But even for the winner, neither lasting fame nor fortune is assured.
In some cases, sales of a Booker winner have rocketed, the most notable being Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark in 1982. It had an initial print run of 15,000, but in the four weeks after winning the prize it sold 75,000 in hardback, going on to sell 500,000 in paperback even before Steven Spielberg came on the scene.
Other winners have had less prolific sales. Salman Rushdie's 1981 winner Midnight's Children (last year voted the Booker of Bookers) sold only 37,000 copies in hardback. David Storey's 1976 winner, Saville, is out of print and has been deleted by the publisher. According to W H Smith, the eventual Booker winner is likely to sell 3,000 to 8,000 extra copies.
Alan Hollinghurst is the 6-4 favourite on this year's shortlist, according to odds quoted by William Hill. The others are: James Kelman 9-4, Romesh Gunesekera 5-1, Jill Paton Walsh 5-1, George Mackay Brown 6-1, Abdulrazak Gurnah 16-1.
Knowledge of Angels
Jill Paton Walsh, Green Bay pounds 14.99
'Rather like looking at a medieval illuminated manuscript recreated by a clever modern artist. Contrived, often describing an idealised world but with luminous moments . . . outside the normal run of contemporary fiction, this is a serious children's book for adult readers, and none the worse for that.'
Romesh Gunesekera, Granta, pounds 13.99
'Anyone wishing to carp might point out that the book's subtleties give us too obvious a nudge, that it wears its art on its sleeve. But these are mere cavils.
'Romesh Gunesekera has swum into the melancholy long withdrawing roar with a snorkel and a pair of goggles.'
How late it was, how late, James Kelman, Secker, pounds 14.99.
'A saga both hilarious and harrowing. You are stuck, for 374 pages, inside the befuddled hung-over mind and the unshaven none-too-clean skin of a blind drunk who achieves nothing in a week beyond the fact of surviving it, but you are never bored. A passionate, scintillating, brilliant song of a book.'
The Folding Star
Alan Hollinghurst, Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99
'Some of the best scenes - and Hollinghurst can write scenes that most writers would kill for - come out of the most humdrum situations.
'Yet for all its flashes of brilliance, and its atmosphere of raging passions, The Folding Star trips over its own cleverness.'
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99
This book, which is not yet reviewed in the Independent, tells the story of an African boy's coming of age. A 12-year-old boy is pawned to pay his father's debts. The author, born in Zanzibar, teaches literature at the University of Kent.
Beside The Ocean Of Time, George Mackay Brown,
John Murray, pounds 14.99
Not yet reviewed in the Independent, this novel is set on the fictitious island of Norday in the Orkneys.
The young hero relives the island's history in his daydreams, but as he grows up, the island suffers momentous changes. The author was born in the Orkneys.
Miles Kington, page 11
Never mind the plot, page 12
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