Janet Street-Porter: Booker prize snobs have lost the plot

Sunday 23 October 2011 09:07

The British publishing industry is the last bastion of true snobbishness. Personally, I couldn't care less who won the Man Booker prize last night – it won't be something I (or most of the population) is likely to read.

Today, at my publisher's behest, I am speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival – one of the many jamborees that seem to have grown like Topsy over the last few years. I always feel like an interloper at these events, after all, who is around at lunchtime midweek? Don't they work? I haven't written a novel, a worthy piece of fiction set in the Third World, or a historical page-turner – just a light-hearted guide to life. I'm just hoping to bring a bit of a cheer to my readers' day. Even worse, I'm common. I'm not pals with Martin Amis, I don't have the same agent as Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and I've never met Edna O'Brien.

Let's be honest, literary prizes and literary festivals are where middle-class luvvies pat each other on the back, and they're never ending. This week and next sees events in Ilkley, Beverley, Derbyshire and Durham. There are so many literary prizes – the Nibbies, the Costa, the Orange, and the most prestigious of them all, the Man Booker, celebrating it's 40th year. But do they reflect public taste?

There's a massive disparity in publishing between books people actually buy and read and swap with their friends and the stuff that gets reviewed favourably in newspapers. Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan wield more power through their book club than anyone, and yet they are most definitely not part of the little clique who selected the Man Booker judges or the Orange short-list. Over the last couple of weeks literary editors have had a good sneer about the tidal wave of so-called celebrity books published this month. Somehow, a well known person's memoirs aren't pukka, and anything by the likes of Katie Price considered a genre too naff too mention, even though the raven-haired beauty is probably this country's best-selling author, even if she doesn't actually write the stuff herself. I doubt Katie Price gets asked to many literary prizes or festivals, which is a shame.

This year I've enjoyed Peter Ackroyd's imaginative book about the tortured life of Edgar Allan Poe, and I struggled through Kate Summerscale's over-rated portrait of a Victorian detective, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Shame she couldn't have come up with a better ending. I equally enjoyed Paul O'Grady's At My Mother's Knee and Alan Carr's hilarious Look Who It Is!. I've just finished Fathers and Sons by Richard Madeley, and it's a well-written account of his dysfunctional family. These men are all household names but their accounts of growing up are engrossing and worthwhile. Don't accuse famous people of churning out books to cash in on their fame – the fact is, they encourage people to read who would never do so normally. And the trouble with events like last night is that they tend to promote a completely distorted picture of the publishing industry.

Although the books chosen by Richard and Judy will sell more than any Man Booker winner, booksellers still regard the words mass market as really meaning of second-rate value. I'd argue that the reverse is true – reading about other people's potty families and weird childhoods does create a kind of social glue. We're all part of the same culture, after all.

For a sharper vision of the future, revisit 'Blade Runner'

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern has been transformed into a huge bunker, with rows of metal beds on which are placed seminal works of science fiction. A huge screen projects a compilation of futuristic movies, and towering over everything are replicas of sculptures. This is 2058, as envisaged by the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

This threadbare vision of the future pales in comparison with imaginative works such as Blade Runner. The other night, the BFI screened a new version, subtitled The Final Cut. Twenty-six years after completion, Ridley's Scott's work is still magisterial.

Great food with no frills the Yorkshire way

According to Harden's restaurant Guide, Yorkshire is the best county outside London to get a decent meal – from the Magpie Café in Whitby to pubs like the Angel at Hetton and the Star Inn at Harome on the North Yorkshire Moors.

Having lived there for 30 years, I'd agree. The quality of the local produce is now so high that I fill my suitcase with cheese, game and meat every time I return to London.

There's an honesty about the way food is presented in Yorkshire: decent sized portions and a lack of artistic squiggles in sauce on the plate. Chefs cook here, instead of dishing up pretent-ious food sculptures.

A publican's life is hard enough as it is

The licensing trade isn't enthusiastic about the Government's latest ideas for curbing excessive drinking: health warning signs where booze is sold, glasses marked with the number of units they contain, and the end of free drinks for women. These measures don't seem that controversial – wine glasses are now the size of goldfish bowls, ensuring that we drink more even if we're only having a quickie on the way home.

Harder to police will be a ban on drinking games – a publican's life is difficult enough without having to eavesdrop on customers and step in when their behaviour deviates from a government guideline. If we want them to be policemen, issue them with uniforms and call them community support officers.

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