BOOKS / And then there were six . . .: The Booker shortlist will be announced on Wednesday. Mark Lawson, one of the panel of judges, reflects on what the 110 entries reveal about new trends in fiction

Mark Lawson
Saturday 05 September 1992 23:02

I WANT to begin by rehabilitating a literary war criminal. In 1983, during the live television coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony, co-presenter Selina Scott asked Fay Weldon, that year's chairperson: 'Did you really read a11 100 novels?' Ms Weldon bridled, the literary world giggled and poor Selina was banished from arts television, and last seen making a documentary on a deserted Scottish island with the Prince of Wales. Confirming its endurance, her Booker question was gleefully featured in last Monday's TV Hell, a BBC2 celebration of the medium's worst moments.

So the first thing I want to say about being one of this year's Booker judges - we have knocked 110 books down to 20 and, on Wednesday, we will pick and announce the official shortlist of six - is that Selina Scott's question now seems to me a very fair one. Nobody who wishes to remain in possession of sanity, family and job could possibly 'really read' (that is, give equal attention to) 110 books, averaging out at around 70,000 words each for a total of nearly 8 million words. You read some books faster than others. You inevitably hurl some works aside after knowing that their engines aren't going to start for you.

Before any twitchy writers yell dereliction, they should be assured that a safety net exists. If any of my fellow judges - Victoria Glendinning, John Coldstream, Valentine Cunningham or Harriet Harvey-Wood - loved a book that I had dumped, then I resumed the struggle through it. I am sure they made the same deal with themselves. Such force-reading is the worst part of judging. It is like being served for dinner the breakfast you sent back as undercooked.

The main attraction of the marathon, for anyone who reads or writes about books, is to see the trends and obsessions of contemporary literature laid out in front of you with full supportive detail. Maybe, in the past, you wrote articles that detected general urgencies gleaned from a few recent books of which you knew. Here was a full year's output for dissection. The bare numbers are contained in the panel below, for which I have loosely borrowed the form of Rowland Morgan's ingenious Index feature in this paper.

Expanding on the simple statistics, the first generalisation I can offer about writing in the early Nineties is that a previous Booker regular - the Colonial Guilt novel - is showing signs of lowering the flag. Written first by British liberals and then by British immigrants, this genre was represented in the 1992 intake really only by Ahdaf Soueif's vast Egyptian novel In The Eye Of The Sun, which may one day be seen to have ended the empire novel.

Its replacement seems set to be the Eurobook. This category divided into authors thriftily turning their holidays into research - a lot of nothing-much-happens-in-Tuscany novels - and those exploring deeper European history. Hilary Mantel's 1789-and-all-that book A Place Of Greater Safety might have turned up any year, but those set in the other nations of the Exchange Rate Mechanism - 10 per cent of the total entries - were clearly prompted by 1989 (the Wall's fall) or 1992 (Delors' rise.)

The archetypes here were Malcolm Bradbury's Eastern European romp Doctor Criminale and Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, which balanced the continent's wave of freedom against its inheritance of terrors. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Christopher Hope's Serenity House were contemporary refractions of events in the Second World War, though the former a poetic meditation and the latter a moral farce. Confounding those with cynical theories of human amnesia, the Holocaust seems now to be the big subject for writers of all generations.

Clearly, ours is the year of the historical novel. At least two thirds of the entries were set outside the 1980s or 90s. Adam Thorpe's Ulverton told stories from four centuries in a Barnesian portmanteau novel: a history of England in 12 chapters. For the one-stop novelists, the 19th century was the most popular spot, particularly the 1880s and 90s, leading you to think that many novelists had been prompted by the calendars to examine a previous millennial period. In the most dramatic assault on judges' expectations, P D James's The Children Of Men cast the millennial shadow forward into a 2025 in which infertility has cursed the world and women cuddle kittens in baby clothes. The judges had to decide whether she had left the whodunnit for the whydunnit.

The popularity of the historical novel may perhaps be explained by the speed of contemporary change. You could have begun a United Europe novel and been undone by a referendum. And who would dare attempt a current Russian story? Of contemporary themes, only the recession novel seems a safe investment.

Another current tension may be responsible for the other rash of similar narratives. In at least eight books - including those by Melvyn Bragg (Crystal Rooms), Andrew Davies (B Monkey) and Sebastian Faulks (A Fool's Alphabet), one character decides on first sight of another that they will love them forever. In the 1992 romance, lives are pledged to strangers in the street, a certainty of eternity read into a single glance. It seemed to me a form of Aids-conciousness: an attempt to make monogamy seem exotic.

The last set of repetitive texts was clearly due to literary, rather than than political or social, history. There was a whole raft of sea-dog novels, possibly inspired by William Golding's great marine trilogy, the first volume of which (Rites Of Passage) won the Booker Prize in 1980. However, the most notable piece of heaving timbers literature this year - Barry Unsworth's slave-ship epic Sacred Hunger - had the feel of a project planned and contemplated since before Golding. A S Byatt's Possession, the 1990 winner, must, though, be blamed for the whole shelf of entries based around the discovery or composition of a family memoir. Still, at least there were fewer novels about novelists.

Otherwise, this judge's experience has been one of strange discoveries and odd dilemmas. Did you know that you don't have to be a recognised publisher to enter? (Next year's judges may particularly come to resent this revelation.) We had one self-published book - handsomely produced, in fact - and one photocopied typescript with a cardboard cover. They reminded me of those soft drinks salesmen from Pittsburgh who put their name on the US presidential ballot. As for the official entries, should we mark down the author - alone among the 110 - who autographed the entries submitted by his publisher? Can we avoid being prejudiced against the novels which That Critic - all sneer and no research - has yawningly described as 'bound to' be on the shortlist? Should we discriminate against bad publishing and editing - like the book in which a character called Harry appears several times as Happy (it seems likely that the text was edited on a computer, using a spellcheck programme which waves through misspellings which form a recognisable word)?

On Wednesday, we decide. Last year, one of the judges - Nicholas Mosley - resigned at the equivalent meeting, having failed to place his favourites. It is a tough act to follow. At our own first meeting, one judge called another a 'condescending bastard', but proceedings were otherwise friendly. Yet what about those two books which three judges love and two hate? By Thursday, will Nicholas Mosley be one of my heroes, as well as Selina Scott?


Prize money in pounds: 20,000

Books entered by publishers: 105

Books called in by judges: 5

Plots featuring old, new or fake memoirs: 10

Plots using photography as a metaphor for the cold modern soul: 5

Novels set wholly or partly in Italy or France: 11

In Ireland: 6

In the Caribbean: 3

In Outer Space: 2

In Wimbledon: 1

Novels set wholly or partly around the Second World War: 7

During the 19th century: 9

During previous centuries: 11

During the next century: 3

Novels featuring characters based on Paul de Man: 2

On Lynn Barber: 2

On Des Wilson: 1

(Photographs omitted)

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