Philip Hensher: What a fool I was not to vote for the most popular book

'You only have to look at the Nobel literature prize to see that popularity is no guarantee of lasting value'
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The last drop of bogus controversy is being squeezed out of this year's Booker prize with the revelation that the winning entry, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, has sold fewer copies than another book on the shortlist, Ian McEwan's Atonement. Booker-bashing is an old sport, of course, but the implications being drawn from this entirely unsurprising and uninteresting fact aren't ones that I quite understand. It is suggested that the Booker judges, of whom I was one, went for the wrong book, and the relative sales of McEwan and Carey demonstrate that our literary judgement was askew.

Rum; very rum. Of course, if the task of the Booker prize was to reward the most popular novel of the year, then it wouldn't have gone to Peter Carey nor to Ian McEwan, but to JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett. I must admit that it hadn't occurred to me that the issue of what was selling well was one that we ought to have taken into account; it seemed, on the whole, that it was more important to identify conspicuous literary merit and reward that, and not to take a shortlist from the bestseller charts.

Of course, that would have made the task much easier. Basically, if you took the advice of some pundits, the job of judging the Booker prize would be a complete doddle. First, you would extract from the 120 books submitted the six or seven written by previous winners of the prize. Then you would get out the bestseller charts and see which of those was doing best and give that the prize. Nothing could be easier, and it would, of course, have the merit – which, I can't help thinking, may be much appreciated by these critics – that you'd never have to read any novels.

Of course, the disadvantage would be that the prize would never discover anyone new or draw anyone's attention to something that the newspapers had failed to notice. However brilliant a novel was, it would only stand a chance if it came from an already famous novelist, who had already received the approval of the list of bestsellers. It must be remembered that all the people who buy Ian McEwan's novels haven't necessarily given it the stamp of approval; they buy it because they've heard it's interesting, and thought they would give it a go. Unlike the Booker judges who made so bad and obvious a mistake, they haven't actually read it.

This really shouldn't be a hard one to explain. The relationship between the popularity of a novel and its literary merit is not a simple one. Although a great novel has to appeal to some people, it needn't have instant, massive popularity. Some do: some don't. The Pickwick Papers was an instant, gigantic success; Moby Dick went more or less unnoticed for several decades. And literary history is absolutely full of examples of books that were not just hugely popular at the time, but viewed by contemporaries as representing the highest possible literary values.

You only have to look at the list of winners of the Nobel prize for literature to see that popularity, allied to a perceived seriousness, is absolutely no guarantee of lasting value. The trick is to try to be sceptical about popularity, and to ask all the time whether a fashionable book has a chance of lasting. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. But sales are never much of a guide in bringing you to a conclusion.

Of course, Ian McEwan's is a good book, and you would have to be a complete churl to resent the very good sales it's achieving. In the last resort, however, the job of the Booker judges is to decide on literary quality and to guess what has a chance of lasting and being read with interest 20 or 30 years from now. From my point of view, setting the Carey and the McEwan next to each other, I could see a distinct difference. In the case of McEwan, I could see what he was trying to do, and often what he was going to do. I could see round it, as it were. The Carey was a much more puzzling book, and a much more exhilaratingly unpredictable one; it raised questions that were still hanging in the air at the end.

That distinction, I think, accounts both for the difference in sales and my feeling about which of them was the richer and more resonant book. A novel that sets its cards on the table will always be immediately attractive, and one that is relatively easy to summarise and give the flavour of is, at first, an easier book to promote. Carey doesn't really work like that; his book is chewy, ambiguous, unsettling. Those are qualities that wouldn't do on the front of a paperback to flog another copy. But, on the other hand, they may very well be the things that keep a book in the mind and keep it alive. Carey seemed open, pulsing, worth arguing with, and it had the unarguably vivid feel of a classic.

Only a fool would make a prediction, but the test of a prize like this one is what books are still in print and being read 30 or 40 years from now. The bestseller lists, one week after the award of the prize, really prove nothing.