Philip Hensher: Now I have faith in literary prizes

'The general standard of most novels is not very high; anything remotely original or technically proficient stood out a mile'
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The Independent Online

Kingsley Amis, years ago, said the most obvious thing about literary prizes: they're all right if you win them. I'd add something to that, though. After having spent most of my year reading 120 or so novels for the Booker Prize, it seems to me that literary prizes are all right if you're the one judging them, too.

Kingsley Amis, years ago, said the most obvious thing about literary prizes: they're all right if you win them. I'd add something to that, though. After having spent most of my year reading 120 or so novels for the Booker Prize, it seems to me that literary prizes are all right if you're the one judging them, too.

Year after year, I groan when the shortlist comes out, stuffed with boringly written books on safe, public themes, as if the novelist hadn't realised that there was a difference between writing a novel and writing a Something Must Be Done piece for a newspaper, apart from length. Now it was my chance, and I was absolutely determined to have some fun.

The other day, bemoaning the fact that we'd shortlisted some young novelists rather than the familiar lions of the literature, a newspaper columnist was claiming that it hadn't improved their sales, and, he asked rhetorically, "you have to ask what the Booker is for."

A curious comment, but, all the same, a question worth asking. The assumptions behind the comment, I think, are pretty badly mistaken. For a start, I don't believe it's true that the young writers on the shortlist reaped no benefit from the exposure. Their sales certainly improved – the last time I looked, all the shortlisted novels were in the top 50, which isn't bad – though it's beyond our powers to turn them into rampaging bestsellers.

Beyond that, the fact of being shortlisted for the Booker has a distinct and substantial effect on a writer's whole career, and it's wrong to pass judgement immediately. Publishers and booksellers will take a novelist's subsequent books much more seriously; his opportunities for exposure increase substantially; his reputation solidifies.

Novelists, of course, can achieve all these things without the benefit of prizes, but a responsible Booker jury can draw attention to books which, it sometimes seems, even the publishers have underestimated. That may, or may not mean turning something into a bestseller, but that seems the least important of a jury's obligations.

Conversely, snobbery about sales means that many brilliant books are underrated by critics for no better reason than that lots of people seem to like them. Here, a prize can draw attention to some really first-rate literary skills lurking in the bestseller lists. I would have loved to have shortlisted Nick Hornby's How To Be Good this year; it was a brilliant book, even though it sold like hot cakes.

So what, to return to the question, is the Booker for? Well, it seems pretty obvious to me: to reward the best book of the year. And there's no question about it; given that any kind of winner is always going to be a subjective choice, I was determined not to get involved in second-guessing, but just to go with my own taste. Booker juries in the past, it seemed to me, have been led to disaster when they started to reward books which they thought the public would like; authors who, literary London had decided, ought to have won it by now; novels on subjects of general interest, even if in practice they bored the jury rigid. Basically, I wasn't going to have anything which didn't excite me, and I wasn't going to be lectured by the newspapers, because – I arrogantly thought – I probably knew much better than they did who deserved a place on the list.

Actually, that's probably a fairly accurate statement of the state of affairs. I got completely fed up with people coming up to me at parties and saying "How could you leave X off?" or "How could you possibly include Y?" My invariable response was "Have you read it?" All too often, the response would be "No, but I heard" before a long explanation of why the unread book was brilliant or rubbish. Very often, somebody's passionate support of a novel was based on the fact that they once read something else by the same author.

And, I have to say, even if the novel had been read, nobody other than the panel knew the points of comparison. You would have to be unusually mad to read 120 novels without being paid to, and the result is that no one else knows what the real standard of novels is. People complained long and hard about the omission of some very distinguished novelists from the longlist, but the fact was, all the novels we selected, obscure or celebrated, were superior.

Basically, the punditry was a considerable irritation, based as it was on almost no knowledge at all. The pundits would have been much happier if we had simply made up a list of the novelists who had won the prize before, and given the prize to whichever novelist happened to be selling best that week. But that would have been a total dereliction of responsibility.

So what's it like? Well, after you are signed up for eight months' duty, the first of many boxes of books arrives. You open it up, and there are 12 or so novels. Some are by familiar names from London publishers; others are sad little memoirs, published from a shed in Northamptonshire. You start to read. By page 50, you are absolutely groaning with boredom and rolling your eyes at the hilarious incompetence, and longing to give up; but you plough on. Even the ones which are functionally illiterate get read, after a fashion. Two or three novels a day, picking one up as you set the last one down – I am a very fast reader, and one knackering day I got through five novels by dint of doing absolutely nothing else, but I wouldn't recommend that.

Given this frantic pace, it's to be wondered what the optimum moment for getting your book read would be. Peter Carey came right at the start; Rachel Seiffert right at the end; but the others appeared randomly, in the middle of reading. The truth is that the general standard of most novels is not particularly high, and anything remotely original or even technically proficient stood out a mile, however tired or bored you were. I remember picking up Zvi Jagendorf's Wolfy and the Strudelbakers unwillingly – a small publisher, a writer I'd never heard of, the third novel of the day – and within 20 pages, I was ignoring the telephone. A really good book could always do that.

I have a bit more faith now in prizes than I did. I don't think they are corrupt; I don't think they need be boring, or well-meaning, or reward only bland, inoffensive novels. On the other hand, the brilliantly quirky sort of book which will only ever delight a few readers – and some of the greatest books in English literature fall firmly into this category – isn't going to win in a prize awarded by a committee, and I watched Ciaran Carson's delightful Shamrock Tea go into the "No" pile with a real regret.

It would be a great mistake to think that the only novels worth reading are ones which win prizes, and some of the best novelists of the last 40 years – Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin, Martin Amis, Louis de Bernières – have made their reputations without any help from the Booker prize.

But I no longer think that literary prizes are necessarily a disaster. Sometimes they get it right, and I like to think, reading the marvellous, bizarre, unbounded fantasy we gave it to this year, that we got it right, and hang the random judgements of the bestseller lists.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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