I found myself wondering, the other day, whether it would make sense to have a Booker longlist if there was no such thing as a Booker winner. The point being that the longlist puts right so much of what's wrong with the finishing-line jamboree – the inherent nonsense of a literary knockout tournament; the strong sense, all too often, that committee-room politics have produced the winner, rather than overall merit. Everything that the prize is said to do for literature, the longlist does as well – by which I mean both "also" and "as creditably". Drawing attention to possibly overlooked titles? Tick. Generally arousing an interest in current writing? Tick. Redressing the parochialism of British letters? Tick.
Indeed, given that the longlist has a much greater scope and fluidity, it could be argued that it fulfils some of these functions rather better than the shortlist and the announcement of the final winner. But would it work without the element of further competition? Sadly, I doubt it. I don't much care which of the 13 longlisted books finally takes the big cheque, but I imagine there are lots of people besides publishers and bookies who do.
In the meantime, anybody who doesn't has plenty of time to enjoy the pleasures of the longlist, so much less invidious than later heats, and so much better at representing the breadth of a reader's experience. You could argue, I suppose, that a longlist isn't really that different from the great spreads of holiday-reading recommendations that newspapers publish at this time of year, but there is one crucial difference: the judges have pretty much read everything – even calling in some books that publishers didn't think had a ghost of a chance. Their selection isn't a snapshot of the Brownian motion of ordinary literary life, in which we bounce from book to book, and often whizz past genius on the way to a collision with the entertainingly mediocre. Their freeze-frame is more comprehensive than that – and, what's more, it's an image that's been subject to just the right amount of peer-group pressure. The longlist needn't provoke tit-for-tat exclusions or agonised horse-trading precisely because it is longer. And yet the consensus isn't meaningless.
That doesn't mean that it's immune from controversy – the very fact that the judges have read everything leaves them particularly exposed to comment. How could they prefer Child 44 – a gripping thriller but not one that really jumps the genre fence – to Tim Winton's Breath or Helen Garner's The Spare Room? But here, too, the longlist enjoys a crucial advantage over the debate generated by the final announcement of the winner. By then, only a handful of novels will be eligible for the status of having been "inexplicably overlooked". Right now, on the other hand, every novel published this year still has a stab at that consolation prize.
It's possible for a novel to gain more publicity through being left off the list than by being included on it – and it's good publicity, too, heartfelt and passionate. It isn't competition that's the problem with the Booker Prize. Serious readers will always compare one novel with another and argue about their comparative merits. The problem is that you have to come up with just one winner.