DJ Taylor: You can read anything into this list of books

The only unifying factor one could discern in the majority of novels was a hatred of journalists
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The Independent Online

As the e-mail sent by the Man Booker Prize outlining this year's longlist flashed up on my computer screen yesterday afternoon, I registered a mild pang of trepidation. Was it nearly a year, I asked myself, since I sat over lunch in the elegant riverside suite provided by the prize's sponsors, under the vigilant and remorseless eye of Professor John Carey ("And what exactly do you mean by that, David?"), and applied myself to the selection of last year's list? It was, and yet curiously enough the memory awakened in me not the least shred of nostalgia, only a vague recollection of weary irritability.

As the e-mail sent by the Man Booker Prize outlining this year's longlist flashed up on my computer screen yesterday afternoon, I registered a mild pang of trepidation. Was it nearly a year, I asked myself, since I sat over lunch in the elegant riverside suite provided by the prize's sponsors, under the vigilant and remorseless eye of Professor John Carey ("And what exactly do you mean by that, David?"), and applied myself to the selection of last year's list? It was, and yet curiously enough the memory awakened in me not the least shred of nostalgia, only a vague recollection of weary irritability.

Despite the amusing article in one newspaper last year setting out to demonstrate what a riotous time the Man Booker judges have of it, and what big houses they all live in, the obligation to adjudicate a literary prize must stand fairly low on the list of disagreeable professional tasks. The Booker is more problematic still in that, unlike some of the non-fiction prizes and the specialist genre awards, the catchment area is practically limitless. Although individual publishing houses are restricted to two entries each (former winners get in ex officio), any entity calling itself a publisher can submit a novel, with the result that the annual roster customarily weighs in at well over three figures (132 this year), ranging from the crisp and lapidary sentences of Nobel prizewinners to amateurish affairs sent in by self-publishers.

Reduce this groaning catalogue - last year's submissions occupied a whole wall on one side of my study - to a fifth of its original size, issue the result to the press with the traditional bromides about catholicity and achievement (the current chair, Chris Smith, has hailed "a strong and varied longlist" born of "a very rich year for fiction"), and what will be the result? Unfailingly, the judges are shot at from both sides, disparaged in certain quarters for being "too highbrow" ("Where are all the popular books?", the cry goes up) and damned by the snooty young men and women in the newspapers for not being highbrow enough.

Then there will be the inevitable squawks about famous names who happen to have been omitted and the equally inevitable "human interest" stories featuring dark horses scampering up from nowhere to trample over the seemly lawns of staid old literary London. You cannot win in this game. Put VS Naipaul in and you will be instantly accused of kow-towing to established reputations. Leave him out, as this year's judges have done, and half a dozen people will want to know the reason for your animus towards this titan of the English novel.

This year's list bears all these characteristics in spades. There are the near-household names (Colm Toibin, Allan Hollinghurst) and the promising outsiders (Nadeem Aslan and John Bemrose). There are the conspicuous absentees (Jonathan Coe, David Lodge and Jeanette Winterson) whose exclusion will have the judges stepping warily into literary parties for the next six months, and the much-hyped book-trade sensations: this year's exemplar is Susannah Clarke's fantastical Jonathan Strange & Mr Norris, which no ordinary reader will have heard of for the simple reason that it has yet to be published.

As for those social patterns and fictional obsessions on which the critics love to swoop, the 22 books on display are set in parts of the world as remote from each other as the Far East and Canada, in patches of historical time ranging from the early modern period to now, feature real people as distinct as David Blaine and Henry James, and consequently defy all taxonomy. A repeat of last year, in fact, where the only unifying factor one could discern in the majority of the submitted novels was a hatred of journalists.

No indication either of the ways in which the British publishing scene is changing, with the rise of the tiny, shoestring-run independent firm (only the Maia Press, sponsor of Lewis Desoto's A Blade of Grass, is represented here) and the continuing ascent of regional voices keen to set their work beyond the M25 corridor. Complicating all this, necessarily, is the fact that the experience of reading a 130 books in three months invariably has a debilitating effect on the reader, clouds his or her judgment, takes whatever opinions he or she may have and anaesthetises them beneath a suffocating torrent of print. By the end of last year's judging process, I loathed most contemporary novels so profoundly that it was all I could do to open one again.

But these are proud professional scars. Here is this year's Man Booker longlist, full of good stuff and with at least half a dozen items that would lend lustre to any bookshelf. It is not, of course, representative of anything, merely what five intelligent people, not all of them particularly au fait with contemporary literature (not necessarily a bad thing) reading against time and in the face of countless other commitments, think will do. As to what it tells us about that dazzling abstract "the state of British fiction", the answer is: nothing, nothing at all.

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