Welcome to the Apes' tea party; the literary hype season starts here

Forget Ascot and Henley. The alternative season begins this evening on the lawn at London Zoo. Already the object of a media frenzy after his exploits on the PM's jet, Will Self will be there to launch his second novel - the aptly-titled Great Apes - in front of the book world's higher primates.

Just to show that there really is no such thing as bad publicity, Self's publishers have despatched press cuttings about his heroin confessions to reviewers along with copies of the book. But these days, publishers think that warm reviews alone won't make a loud enough noise in the literary menagerie.

Even without Self's notoriety, the party in such a venue would fire the opening shots in a war for media attention that grows more savage every year.

But purchased hype can backfire badly. Last year's teaser campaign for the paperback of Martin Amis's The Information fell flat: punters failed to spot the book behind an enigmatic logo that sprouted on bus shelters. So publishers hope that their favoured novels can not only scale the charts after their PR blitzes - at a cost that can top pounds 100,000 - but also contend for a major fiction award.

This year, Picador's hopes for a Booker Prize victory are focused on John Banville. The Irish novelist and literary editor of the Irish Times has slipped into the mainstream with The Untouchable - his fictionalised life of the Fourth Man, Sir Anthony Blunt.

Prize success alone can still sell books in vast quantities. In 1996, Kate Atkinson's triumph in the Whitbread Awards for Behind the Scenes at the Museum helped to shift nearly 400,000 copies of a debut novel by a formerly unknown writer. This week, it still features in the paperback Top 40.

Meanwhile, awards for fiction grow ever more numerous and lucrative. The pounds 30,000 Orange Prize for women's fiction - won last year by Helen Dunmore - has survived quarrels over separatism and will release a second shortlist on 7 May.

Soon after will come news of the ultimate literary blockbuster. The management company IMPAC sponsors an international award for fiction worth pounds 100,000 to the winner. Its first recipient was David Malouf, for Remembering Babylon. This year's contenders include Morvern Callar, a much-loved novel of the Ibiza rave scene by the Scottish writer Alan Warner.

Yet the Booker, now almost 30 years old, keeps a cachet that survives the larger sums offered by its younger rivals. The 1997 award may prove to be the hardest-fought contest for years. The drug factor may help or hinder Self, but Bloomsbury already have firm hopes of a Booker triumph with Fugitive Pieces, the lyrical debut novel from Anne Michaels.

HarperCollins will want to see the pounds 150,000 it spent on a first novel by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, rewarded by at least some shortlist appearances. Viking Penguin expects Jim Crace's Quarantine - a re-imagining of Jesus's ordeal in the wilderness - to appeal strongly to prize judges.

Later in the year, new works by Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Brian Moore and Bernard MacLaverty will be jostling for attention, mixing a hard sell with sidelong bids for critical acclaim.

All this frantic schmoozing can pay off for years to come. Five years ago, Bloomsbury's founder Liz Calder put a huge effort into promoting a complex and poetic new novel by a little-known Sri Lankan-Canadian author. It paid off. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient went on to share the Booker Prize - and that, as everyone now knows, turned out to be far from the final chapter.

An extract from Great Apes, chapter one

Humans are what they are because of their humanity. Humans in the wild are very different from chimpanzees. Human social organisation may be impressively complex when viewed through the lens of scientific enquiry, but stripped of this, the raw facts are brute. Humans often consort - and therefore mate - for life. Instead of resolving conflict in a simple manner concordant with dominance hierarchies, human society appears horribly anarchic; bands of humans gather to propagate their own "ways of life" (perhaps primitive forms of ideology) on their fellows. And while humans may display as much regard for their offspring as chimpanzees do, their perverse adhesion to the organising principle of monogamy (perverse because it confers no apparent genetic advantage) means the gulf between "group" and community ties is large. Old humans are disregarded and neglected far more than old chimpanzees.

But perhaps most significant is the human attitude to touch. Humans, because of their lack of a protective coat, have not evolved the complex rituals of grooming and touch that so define chimpanzee social organisation and gesticulation. Imagine not being groomed! It is almost unthinkable to a chimpanzee that a significant portion of the day should not be given over to this most cohering and sensual of activities. Undoubtedly it is this lack of grooming that renders human sexuality so bizarre to us.

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