What Does It Take To Win A Literary Prize?: Literary award with more twists than a good novel

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The Independent Online
MONEY CAN'T buy you love. Sometimes, in the confusing world of the literary prize, a lorry-load of cash can't buy you any attention either. In France, the revered Prix Goncourt each year awards 50 francs (about pounds 5) to the winning novelist. As night follows day, that token offering will bring in its wake sales that can often reach seven figures, and a lifetime of guaranteed esteem.

Now consider the International IMPAC/Dublin Literary Award. The which? Precisely. Launched in 1996, sponsored by a US management consultancy and organised from Dublin, the IMPAC gives a cool IRpounds 100,000 (pounds 87,400) to an English-language novel or an English translation. It has just announced a formidable short-list for 1999, which features Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader.

Yet the heavy weight of IMPAC funding has failed to make much of a dent on public consciousness - although it has one of the finest specialist PR firms in London on the case. Something diffuse and hard-to-grasp about its brief, its time-scale and its purpose has muffled the message.

To bring the greatest benefits to authors (and to sponsors), a literary award needs clarity, focus and controversy. The Booker Prize for fiction, now in its 31st year, has seldom lacked contention, even though newer awards have overtaken its pounds 20,000 value.

As one of the judges this year, I discovered that the annual Booker buzz begins around the time of the first cuckoo. No sooner had the panel met for a preliminary meeting than details of their lunchtime drinking habits mysteriously turned up on a tabloid paper's gossip page. It's all good murky fun, designed to keep the Booker in the public eye and to stop its rivals snatching its undoubted role as market-leader.

Martyn Goff, the genial and sure-footed sultan of spin who masterminds the Booker every year, could give lessons in media massaging to Peter Mandelson. Sir Michael Caine, the former Booker plc chairman who died last month, also worked tirelessly to keep the prize at the top of its class.

As for the judges - well, they can be relied on to behave erratically enough. Last year, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald managed to scupper the widely tipped Beryl Bainbridge's chances, and so ensure that Ian McEwan won. (Fitzgerald was rooting for Magnus Mills, bus-driver turned novelist and now The Independent's radio critic).

And, in 1994, a world-class spell of committee-busting by the Scots journalist Alan Taylor saw him rapidly pushing his favoured candidate - James Kelman - from a straggling third place into the winners' enclosure. That year's wrong-footed chairman, Professor John Bayley, riposted with an after-dinner speech that trashed exactly the sort of streetwise modern novel that had just won his prize. Listening to Bayley, the writer sitting next to me grumbled his dissent. His name? Salman Rushdie.

We shall know soon enough what this year's Booker barneys have in store. The lesson for all prize-givers and prize-funders is that a successful award calls for a dusting of spice as well as solidity; for grit as well as gravitas. Just like the best kind of novel, in fact.