Never mind the plot, enjoy the agument

Mark Lawson
Monday 05 September 1994 23:02

THE BOOKER Prize is officially intended to promote the cause of serious fiction, but its function has, over time, become more subtle. The aim is now to provoke rows and scandals, which may, in due course, promote the cause of serious fiction.

For example, last week, the chairman of the 1994 panel, Professor John Bayley, told the Evening Standard that all modern novels were more or less worthless. If a senior judge for the Nobel Peace Prize remarked to a journalist in the week before the announcement, 'What bloody peace? Half the people up for it are terrorists in sheep's clothing', he would be required to resign. But the Chairman of the Booker panel was acting well within the traditions of his office. He had provided a talking point.

Similarly, yesterday's shortlist may, at first sight, seem merely to honour six little-known literary novelists. Viewed as a series of potential or already-detonated bust-ups, it begins to seem more impressive. Talking points, debates-in-waiting, spill from the selection. The first self-published shortlisted author] (Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge Of Angels.) The year of the Scots] Two Scottish judges (Alan Taylor, Alastair Niven) and two Scottish writers (George Mackay Brown, James Kelman.) And who - anyway - are all these people?

There are four kinds of Booker row. There is the Judging Bust-Up, in which one or more among the annual quintet of literary magistrates squabble or resign. There is the Inclusion Dispute, where the selection of a particular work is shrilly criticised by literary journalists. There is the Exclusion Furore, in which much the same people shout about a book being left out. Finally, there is the Category Spat, in which an entrant is fingered as really being non-fiction or actually constituting a novella.

Most years manage one or two of these explosions. In 1992, when I was one of the judges, we shamefully hadn't provoked any, but managed to sneak one in right at the wire by dividing the prize between two novels. The 1994 panel, though, will need no such last-minute wilfulness. It has already managed the full four-pack of fusses.

For example, an Exclusion Furore and an Inclusion Dispute can be achieved within the same list, but purists prefer a situation in which allegiance to one of these tacks automatically creates the other. This year's panel has been consistently exclusive, rejecting entries by seven previous Booker laureates - including one, Nadine Gordimer, who has recently also taken the Nobel Prize - and several other high-profile writers, with well-reviewed titles eligible, such as Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood.

Such a rejection of the celebrated by definition ensures a huge Inclusion Dispute, which the 1994 line-up, featuring 70 per cent unknowns, has brought off with bravura. Indeed, part of the PR genius of the prize is that any year's shortlist guarantees either a 'usual suspects' fuss (full of famous names) or a 'who the hell?' (obscure novelists) rumpus.

This year's selections have also prompted two Category Spats: one detonated and one defused. Martyn Goff, the administrator of the prize, the man responsible for ensuring as many rows each year as possible, accepted Viking's entry of Craig Raine's 333-page epic poem, History: The Home Movie. This decision was the work of a skilled publicist. Worried that the local cucumber show is becoming predictable, the organiser agrees to admit very large carrots with a green tinge.

I'm glad that the judges passed over History, not because it isn't a remarkable piece of writing but because, if that's a novel, Anita Brookner is a Dutchman. If Raine had made it to the list, next year's judges would justifiably have been engulfed not only by steroid- fed verse but by film scripts and stage plays. Even Lord Howe's memoirs might have thought it worth a punt.

The 1995 panel will, though, suffer an extra burden: an influx of lumpy brown paper parcels as a result of Jill Paton Walsh's striking achievement in becoming the first home- published author to make the shortlist. With this decision, the Booker manages to provide, after 27 years, a completely new media angle. Her inclusion advertises the democracy of the prize.

That this story should be thrown up by the 1994 shortlist is, however, extraordinary, given that the first row of this year's process - a fine example of the Judging Bust-Up - sent an exactly contrary message: the familiar one that the literary world is a cabal of insiders. James Wood, the lavishly-titled 'chief literary critic' of the Guardian, failed to mention that one of the entered authors, Claire Messud, was his wife.

This scandal is not as simple as it appears. Interests of close friendship, and even sex, have clearly not been declared by previous judges. One earlier panellist reportedly spent the time between shortlist and final prize staying in the villa of a writer whose inclusion they had championed enthusiastically. In one sense, this young couple was punished for the conventionality of their relationship.

On the other boot, Mr Wood, in a series of Guardian articles in recent years, has savaged the earlier Booker panels, accusing them (indeed, us) of incompetence and lack of authority. Well, these things we may have been, but we all got through our duties without running the risk of the pounds 20,000 winner's cheque being sent to our own address.

But the fact that the coverage of this year's prize has moved from 'judge's wife on list' to 'housewife on list' illustrates the publicity versatility of the Booker Prize. I do not, though, mean this as a criticism. The point that keeps needing to be made is that the Booker has demonstrably raised the interest in, and sales of, serious fiction. Current Top Ten sellers such as William Boyd, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes owe much of the height of their profiles to early Booker notice. Or look at the sales now being achieved by Booker-type books: novels such as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong (now past 100,000 paperback copies) and E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, which never won the prize, or came near to it, but are treated by booksellers and readers as part of the same genre.

The biggest mistake - but a common one - is to think that the frequent rows, scandals and books-pages debates indicate that the Booker Prize is in trouble. It's the rows that keep it going. The only problem is that Mr Goff may be running out of possibilities for generating copy. The give-it-to-the-missus spat would be hard to repeat, as the marital arrangements of next year's panel will immediately be studied by the media. But something absurd like, say, rumours of silent phone calls from Jeanette Winterson to one of the judges should get the story going again.

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