Fiction friction

March 20, 1998

Valentine Cunningham still bears the scars from the last time he helped judge the Booker Prize. But he is stepping into the fray again with a suggestion for how the competition everyone loves to hate could be improved

It's that Five-Go-Adventuring-For-The-Year's-Best-Novels time again. The judges for the 1998 Booker prize for Commonwealth and Irish fiction had their first lunch last week.

As Booker judges go, we are five of the usual suspects. There is the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who has been shortlisted several times and has won once (Offshore, 1979). And Miriam Gross, literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph, who has seen more of the bookish action and emotion than can properly be imagined. And The Times columnist, foodie journalist and sometime professional novel critic, Nigella Lawson. And myself, representing academic literary critical wisdom, of course, and still bearing the scars of my first session as a judge in 1992. And our leader and chairman, Douglas Hurd, returning now to writing his political thrillers after a longish interlude distracted from writing because he was foreign secretary and such. Policemen sweep rooms for bombs ahead of his arrivals, so his declaration that he feels like "a young subaltern selected to lead a platoon on a particularly dangerous mission" packs, one feels, a more than merely metaphorical punch.

There have been no snipers or grenade-throwers so far. They will come later, no doubt, when our decisions start to get leaked. For the moment it is all publicity photographs and sweetness and light - not to mention the chicken liver pte with brandy, the poached fillets of Sole Veronique, the first summer pudding of my year, and the Calitera Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 at the Savile Club in London's Brook Street. Booker judges have been lunching at the Savile for years, courtesy of the prize's convivial mastermind, Martyn Goff, who acts for the Booker Trust which acts for the Booker Prize Committee which acts for Booker plc, the food people who fund the whole show.

A whole summer of promising lunching lies ahead, climaxing in the posh presentation festival on October in London's Guildhall. October is, of course, the date when the critical knife-wielders will really get their blades out. And is it not funny that so many of the professional denigrators of Booker results wheeled out annually on telly to tell us the six shortlisted novels were all rubbish, and the winner not worth crossing the floor of Waterstone's to purchase, should be F. R. Leavis-influenced products of the Cambridge English faculty - Howard Jacobson, Lisa Jardine, Germaine Greer and the like.

Denigrating, though, on the scale that happens is often the sloppiest of knee-jerk reactions. For, in many ways, the Booker, our very own equivalent of the French Prix Goncourt, has done our novel proud. The list of the first 29 years of Booker winners proves, on inspection, actually rather impressive. Nobody's canon of best recent British and Commonwealth fiction would, I take it, care to be without William Golding's Rites of Passage (1980), Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974) or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992) to name only a few.

And lots of Booker shortlists have not been bad either. It is clearly rotten luck on an author, as well as a sign of the judges' good shortlisting judgement, when Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, say, is up against Midnight's Children, or Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers is vying with Rites of Passage or when Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and John Banville's The Book of Evidence and James Kelman's A Disaffection and Rose Tremain's Restoration are all rivals to The Remains of the Day.

It is also glumly the case, however, that for every such year when the judges have clearly done their stuff, there are several more when you can only wonder at how the winners could possibly have emerged from the ruck of entries, let alone from the shortlist. Take Anita Brookner's polished but slight Hotel du Lac, for instance, beating off Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and David Lodge's Small World in 1984, or Keri Hulme's neanderthal The Bone People outdoing Peter Carey's Illywhacker, Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist and Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice in 1985. How on earth did Arundhati Roy's amateurish The God of Small Things outdo both Jim Crace's lovely rewrite of the story of Christ in the Wilderness, Quarantine (which rightly won the Whitbread Prize for fiction) and Bernard MacLaverty's extraordinarily inventive welding of musicology and anti-bigotry in Ulster, Grace Notes?

And just how did Ms Roy get on to last year's shortlist in the first place? Booker shortlists often come full of intense surprises. It is, of course, good that Timothy Mo, Ian McEwan, Brian Moore, Thomas Kenneally, Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, Graham Swift, James Kelman and so on, should get on to the shortlists so frequently - though why Iris Murdoch only won once (The Sea, The Sea, 1978) out of her six appearances there does beat me. But what happened last year, I ask, to Peter Carey's lovely revision of Charles Dickens's Magwitch story Jack Maggs, or John Banville's deft reading of Antony Blunt's spying career The Untouchable or Mich le Roberts's bad-Christian, good-girls revisionism Impossible Saints or Jeanette Winterson's latest investment in female bodiliness Gut Symmetries, or, for that matter, Martin Amis's sparky hommage to hard-boiled American fiction Night Train? What were the judges playing at? But then it is mighty curious that Martin Amis's Money did not get shortlisted in 1984, either, nor London Fields in 1989, nor Time's Arrow in 1991, nor The Information in 1995.

Committees thrive, of course, on compromise, and some Booker winners can only have made it as every judge's second choice. And every judge has some regrets. David Lodge, for instance, has let it be known he wishes he had not given in as chairman in 1989 to novelist Maggie Gee's strong hostility to London Fields. It was a principled move when Nicholas Mosley resigned as judge in 1991 because none of his choices made the shortlist. Less principled, philosopher A. J. Ayer arrived to chair proceedings in 1978 announcing airily that he only ever read detective stories - and then reportedly got his wife to read the entered books. Richard Cobb, chair in 1984, may have been the greatest historian of France out, but he showed his insouciance in fiction matters by sharply guillotining all possibility of a placing for Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Amis's Money. At least Malcolm Muggeridge had the grace to drop out when he realised the year's fictions were beyond him (too sexy, he thought).

I was astounded, as one of the judges in 1992, when first Mark Lawson and then John Coldstream, the Daily Telegraph literary editor, announced they had changed their minds 100 per cent and more or less overnight about Ondaatje's The English Patient. Not a way, I still think, of having literary opinions, and only some real heel-digging-in by me and Victoria Glendinning, chairperson that year, managed to get Ondaatje up on the podium as joint-winner with Barry Unsworth's harmless and broken-backed slaver novel Sacred Hunger. What became of those two novels?

Perhaps it is having to read so many novels - 100 or more between April and August - that addles the brain. Certainly it is easy to feel, as you o.d. on all this fiction and your critical juices dry up completely, that enough is enough. Pity more, though, the novelists. Losers' anger is understandable. "They're fighting out there", ran the excited word in the women's toilets at the Guildhall in 1992, according to my spies. It was only my friend Nigel Williams scragging me with mock (mock?) hostility. "You bastard, you didn't shortlist me" (the bastard, he ripped my DJ). But a bit of aggro was clearly what the punters expected. I certainly sympathised with Ian McEwan's party storming out of the dinner when his Black Dogs did not win.

At least McEwan was on the shortlist. A small consolation, but a consolation nonetheless. Unlike Jim Crace, for example, who had to be content with having it leaked to him that he had been on the long, or intermediate shortlist, but had not quite made the cut.

I would like the long list - 20 or so books - which is drawn up in August and often leaked anyway, to be public knowledge. It really does give a picture of what is good in the year's fiction - after which things are rather a lottery. Sadly, I failed over lunch this week to persuade our brigade commander Martyn Goff of this. The short shortlist bates the public breath better, is the argument.

Even outright winners, though, are not always satisfied. John Berger, winner in 1972, notoriously promised in his acceptance speech to donate half (only half) his prize money to the Black Panthers because Booker employed sweated labour in its West Indies sugar plantations (alas these no longer existed by then and neither did the Panthers). James Kelman, Scottish anger clearly unappeased by his 1994 win with f-word world championship-holder How Late It Was, How Late, roundly denounced all southern softies and their lousy bourgeois prizes in the post-match television interview, all punchy string tie and no dinner jacket, thank you very much. Philip Larkin at least made a joke about having to dig out his old 1950s Lucky Jim-type evening clothes for his speech as chairman. Whoever might win, you can be sure the judges, at least, will lose. I am watching my back.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English literature at Oxford University.

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