Read this to the end, or I'm a lesbian

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The Independent Online

All professions are plagued by scurrilous rumour and unkind gossip. From my own experience, I have found politicos to be manipulative and vicious, academics scheming and jealous, journalists sly and poisonous, but for sheer vitriol and downright bitchiness, it's hard to beat the literary crowd. Until I was appointed a Man Booker Prize judge last year, I had never quite appreciated how much poison could be crammed into one chalice. Just when I thought it was all over - the prize awarded and the blood mopped off the floor - a Guardian writer accused me of promoting my "good friend" Susanna Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I felt I hadn't progressed beyond the time one of St Hugh's rugger boys accosted me in the college bar and said, "Everyone's saying you're a lesbian."

All professions are plagued by scurrilous rumour and unkind gossip. From my own experience, I have found politicos to be manipulative and vicious, academics scheming and jealous, journalists sly and poisonous, but for sheer vitriol and downright bitchiness, it's hard to beat the literary crowd. Until I was appointed a Man Booker Prize judge last year, I had never quite appreciated how much poison could be crammed into one chalice. Just when I thought it was all over - the prize awarded and the blood mopped off the floor - a Guardian writer accused me of promoting my "good friend" Susanna Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I felt I hadn't progressed beyond the time one of St Hugh's rugger boys accosted me in the college bar and said, "Everyone's saying you're a lesbian."

"Everyone? Even my boyfriend?" The man in question wasn't a student, so no one had seen me snogging him; ergo Rowan is a lesbian. (I wish.) Alas for the Guardian hack, the circumstantial evidence in Susanna Clarke's case is equally misleading: we both live in Cambridge. Er, that's it. But imagine my crushing despair when darling Susanna didn't ask me to the Cambridge launch of her book. I had to find out about the two-timing little bitch's party via the local wine merchant. Next time I'm on a prize committee, I'll fix her good and proper.

You can see how it all escalates. So I was inclined to feel sorry for Professor John Sutherland when the news that he had been chosen to chair this year's Man Booker Prize panel was met with a howl of rage to the effect that this is the most ill-conceived appointment in the history of headhunting. But on further ravenous scrutiny of the gossip, it sounds like Sutherland is only reaping what he's sown. As a judge of the 1999 Booker Prize, he infuriated fellow panellists by leaking details of their private discussions and opinions. Our sister daily paper's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, is still fuming about the matter. I don't blame him. It's bad enough that all the bastarding bastards outside the Booker panel take a pop without your fellow judges kneecapping you. At least Tonkin and his colleagues can take solace from the fact that apparently their comments were reported inaccurately.

I live in dread that my own adjudicating thoughts will be reported word for word. Screw the friends' books you liked - what about mates' novels you detested? What if an acquaintance finds out that you said, "I don't care if she's a lesbian. I would rather eat my own intestines than see that pile of dead herrings' heads on the long list." Paraffin through the door, that's what. Do Booker judges block each other's favoured novels? Yes, it's the nature of the beast. At least two of my fellow judges will blame me for not seeing an impassioned choice higher up the pecking order. But everyone has equal hold over each other; if one judge breaks ranks, they run the risk of another telling the world, "He said that Martin Amis smells and A S Byatt's a sad loser."

John Sutherland should be praised, however, for raising one book prize shibboleth that deserves more public debate. How much of a novel do you need to read before using its pages as cat litter? My Booker task was not helped by my husband idly reading the first page of a novel and saying, "This one's obviously crap - it starts with a hanging clause."

Despite this, I did turn every page of every book lest a scary lesbian discovered that I hadn't read the moving bit where Cynthia kisses Beryl. And I think that's the right approach. Only this week I learnt that another judge on another prestigious book prize panel, according to a friend of a friend of my nan, so it must be true, hadn't finished The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, the novel that won this year's Booker Prize. This book's accumulative power resides in the final pages and the most beautifully judged ending of any novel for many a long year.

In my view, if you can't finish a book that's seriously in contention, you don't deserve the judge's fee. So, my advice to putative judges of scandal-ridden literary prizes is: do read the books. Particularly if they're by crazy stone-throwing lesbians.

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