Philip Hensher: Forget about writing if you're on the Booker

Monday 20 October 2008 00:00

After the whole business was over and I had my life back, I sat down and tried to work out what the dreamlike experience of being short-listed for the Booker Prize had been like. I had published six novels, to varying degrees of public exposure, and didn't think anything much could surprise me. Having been a judge of the Booker itself, as well as having lived in the literary world for years, I thought I could cope with it. It felt, however, in the end, like an experience quite different from anything else, and the day after, when the laborious considerations of juries had passed over my book, like nothing so much as a release.

At one point on the day of the awards, having been obliged to face a bank of photographers, talk to Russian television, and for the fortieth time in a month answer the questions "So, what is your book about?" and "How do you feel about being shortlisted for the Booker Prize?", I found myself actually running out of Hatchard's bookshop, where the photography session was taking place, almost into the oncoming traffic. I don't quite know how I would have coped if it had gone any further than it did.

Novelists are often slightly shy people, and have chosen a particular way to put themselves into the world, through the written word. I find it a slight effort to supplement that with explanations, stage performances, engagements with journalists who have no interest in you or your book and, in particular, photographers pushing cameras into your face without explanation or request .

Being shortlisted for the Booker was, however, an overwhelmingly positive experience. I have gained thousands more readers in the past six weeks – and since one doesn't want to be famous, but only to gain fame for one's books, that is about as good as it gets. It isn't a wrestling match, where one person wins memorably, and the loser is cast out into the outer darkness. The book is still there to be read, with enjoyment. For the most part, it was a pleasure to be ferried around and have some surprisingly grand people be extremely nice to me. Best of all, to get to spend time with the other shortlisted authors, especially Amitav Ghosh and Sebastian Barry, whose books I've always loved but neither of whom I'd ever met.

But then again: from the day of the announcement of the long-list to the morning after the dinner, a period of some 10 weeks, I was completely incapable of continuing at all with the novel I had just begun. If prizes like this are, in the long term, good for nurturing novelists' careers, in the short-term they may be damaging to the creative principle. If you took the judgements of prizes too seriously, that could easily put an end to your ability to write altogether. I tried to view the whole thing with a sceptical eye. I would be very interested to hear the views of some people who have judged my novel for prizes. Those of some others, whether positive or negative, would be a matter of the most perfect indifference to me.

All in all, it was quite an interesting experience and, after the television cameras had swivelled in the direction of Aravind Adiga, I found myself comforting my publishers, who I'm afraid were much more disappointed than I was. "You're behaving very well," people kept saying with surprise, although I don't know what they expected me to do – punch Michael Portillo? The next day, we slept in late and went off to a long, disgraceful and very noisy lunch at St John. And the day after that, having woken up, for some reason, in Geneva, I dusted off my notebook and Biro and wrote 2,000 words of a new novel.

Well done the Greeks for honouring Byron. It wouldn't happen here

The Greek government has wonderfully decided to honour Lord Byron with a national day. Every 19 April from now on, the country will celebrate the Anglo-Scottish poet, who fought to liberate Greece and, conspicuously, expressed distaste over Lord Elgin's acquisition of the Parthenon marbles. It is Byron's birthday. I cannot find that anyone is planning to do anything much over here, but it is nice that the Greeks are bring proud of a British poet on our behalf.

It would seem terribly odd to us to celebrate a writer in this way, however public a life he led. It seems peculiar enough to put up a statue to a writer. Sibelius remarked that no one ever erected a statue to a critic but, in the first place, it isn't true – there are statues of Sainte-Beuve in Paris – and, in the second, we hardly ever put up statues to writers here either. Why is the idea of a statue to Sir Kingsley Amis, or an Evelyn Waugh Day, so instantly risible?

Why do we feel that a Byron Day in Greece might have got the point of the freedom-fighting Byron, but hardly that of the author of Don Juan and Beppo?

Beware the curse of the child-friendly pub

The editors of the Good Pub Guide have expressed concern about the rise of "family-friendly" pubs and, in particular, the bad behaviour of children left to run riot by sozzled parents. Amazingly, 90 per cent of the country's 55,000 pubs welcome children. I say "amazingly" because I don't remember the last time I saw a child in a pub, at least not one I stayed in. A month or so ago we did a sharp U-turn on entering a pub in Clapham which had a basket of toys in the corner. Horrible prospect.

Adult spaces are growing fewer in number, and adult enjoyments viewed as deeply suspect. I cannot understand why cultural spaces – libraries, art galleries and concert halls – cannot lure customers in with the promise that on certain days of the week, they will be child-free.

But then, their grant is often tied to their ability to reach out to the bored juvenile, rather than based on their serious, adult appeal. The earnest mother enunciating justifications of Hammershoi to her pre-teen is a terrible curse of modern life. To be honest, I don't care if 90 per cent of pubs do accept children. So long as nowhere I choose to go is obliged to let them in, that seems absolutely fine to me.

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