Prejudices on the Booker prize panel

About 10 will be novels written by television gardeners and professional comedians, and so needn't be read

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Now that it's fashionable to knock the Booker prize - and everyone agrees it's not as good as it used to be at tracking talent - it's probably as well to think about the alternatives. Once you've done that, you will probably come to the conclusion that it's not really as bad as all that.

Now that it's fashionable to knock the Booker prize - and everyone agrees it's not as good as it used to be at tracking talent - it's probably as well to think about the alternatives. Once you've done that, you will probably come to the conclusion that it's not really as bad as all that.

In the case of the Booker prize, five or so well-intentioned and reasonably well-read people are summoned, and given 130-odd novels to read. Of these, 20 or so will reveal themselves as incompetent within the first five pages, through the ignorance either of English grammar or the meanings of ordinary English words, and may be discarded immediately.

A further 30 will, after 100 pages, be discovered to be wildly egotistical ramblings about the author's own love affairs, or thinly disguised acts of revenge, and can be dropped, too. Another 10 will be novels written by television gardeners and professional comedians, and needn't be read.

Another 20 will be discovered to be obvious rip-offs of the book which won the Booker Prize the year before last - one lady on the panel, who hasn't read that book, will exasperate her fellow judges by declaring at least three of these, emanating usually from Canada, to be "masterpieces" and thereby obliging them actually to read them to the end.

Another 15 will be written by someone whom one of the judges detests, whether because he once reviewed a friend-of-a-judge insultingly, or just slept with a judge's wife; these books will actually be read, for the satisfying purpose of ripping them apart in the meetings in rich detail.

That leaves about 35 novels which, with a fair amount of professional devotion, the judges will generally read to the end and take care to discuss. Terrific prejudices remain; the Scottish judge will do anything to get a Scottish novel on the shortlist. Most people can't be doing with a novel with a green cover. When I judged the prize, I was determined that I wasn't going to have anything told in the present tense throughout, or which referred to a character as having "erect nipples."

If a homosexual author should come anywhere near the shortlist, someone will make sure that he gets no further, on the grounds of frivolity, or narrowness of experience ("I thought the women were just unconvincing"). At this point, five reasonably intelligent and literate people will find that they have read the same 35 or so books and can discuss them with a view to finding out which they think is the best. That is not a bad place to start.

Consider the alternatives to this rational process, particularly the vote-in television programmes which the BBC now seems so keen on. The Big Read, a long-running series in which the population was enjoined to phone in and vote for their favourite book, was presented and perhaps even seen as a populist version of the "highbrow" literary prizes such as the Booker. (The idea that you could put literature on the television these days in any other form than turning it into a horse-race is self-evidently absurd to the average BBC-employed philistine).

The result was that people were voting for one book which they had read at the expense of 25 books which, generally, they hadn't. Nobody seemed to think it absurd that a lot of ravening seven-year-olds could propel Harry Potter and the Bucket of Sick to the position of Third Greatest Book Ever Written when, in fact, they hadn't actually read anything else.

Nobody in the ridiculous exercise ever felt it necessary to ask any of the "celebrities" promoting Winnie the Pooh as "their favourite" why they thought it a better book than, say, Bleak House for the obvious reason that they probably hadn't felt it necessary to read it. The Big Read, and any other comparative exercise in which those contributing to the result don't actually compare the entrants, is basically not just worthless but actively anti-literature.

Whatever you may think of the Booker prize, at least books are being read reasonably carefully and compared in terms of quality. It is terribly easy to look at the sometimes eccentric results and declare it to be largely a waste of time. Martin Amis has only ever been shortlisted for the prize once. V S Naipaul has won it only once, and has not been shortlisted for the past 25 years - in the year The Enigma of Arrival was published, one of the most important novels of the century, we were expected to believe that novels by Penelope Lively, Brian Moore and an almost incomprehensible late-period indulgence by Iris Murdoch were more worthy of acclaim.

Angela Carter never won it, nor Bruce Chatwin, or Anthony Burgess; nor have Rohinton Mistry, or Tim Winton, or Jim Crace, or William Boyd, or Zadie Smith, or Doris Lessing, or Hanif Kureishi - one could go on more or less indefinitely.

On the other hand, there is a long list of completely harmless mediocrities who have been rewarded with a place on the shortlist, or even with the prize itself; it is hard to believe that Zoë Heller wrote one of the six best novels of 2003, and impossible to think that the authors of the mildly interesting jeux d'esprit which won in the last two years will go on to do anything worth anyone's attention.

All the same, it does just about stand up to the question of whether the prize intends and succeeds in rewarding literary merit. Looking at the list of previous winners, it is surprising to see how many of them retain a claim on our attention, and actually maintain a kind of living presence. Although quite a lot of winners have completely disappeared from consciousness - who now reads a novel even as recent as Pat Barker's Ghost Road, which won in 1995? - a lot have been seen to deserve their prize, and In A Free State, which won in 1971, and The Siege of Krishnapur from 1973, are by now practically classics.

What we get this year is pretty well what we ought to expect from the Booker prize, and, if it's not really good enough, it is a great deal better than the alternative of popular canvassing. There are, as ever, some good novelists on the shortlist, and some inoffensive mediocrities. The characteristic tone of most of them is formal, scrupulous and lacking in personal flavour, rather than the generalised taste of contemporary literary writing. The subject matter is much more daring than the style of the prose, and only one novel on the shortlist does anything formally creative; judges generally get to the point where they don't like anything which changes tone or does anything which they can't immediately figure out.

That's not really a bad result in the end, and the prize this year is probably going to go to quite a good book, which will be read by people who wouldn't otherwise have noticed it. The real competition isn't won when someone is handed a cheque; it is the result of years of consensus among readers. That, much more than the Booker, is the one worth winning, and Booker only matters when it concurs with it.

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