Roy Hattersley: review

January 28, 2005

I had doubts from the start about being a Whitbread judge, but they turned out to be literally misplaced. Instead of worrying about whether I would enjoy reading 34 biographies, my first task as judge, I should have agonised over whether I could tolerate being part of the whole artificial exercise.

The organisers - a firm that specialises in sponsorship - told us time and again, "You are looking simply for the book which you most enjoyed."

But, in reality, I was helping to select the title that newspapers (encouraged by the organisers) would describe as "the best".

When, as the result of her success on Tuesday night, Andrea Levy's sales increase, it will not be because I found great pleasure in reading Small Island . The reading public will regard her victory as a mark of merit.

I have absolutely no doubt that Small Island is a novel of unusually high quality. Whether or not it was "better" than the other four books on the final shortlist I really have no idea.

It is simply not possible - except in the subjective terms that the organisers used to make sense of the last judgement - to compare a novel, a biography, a book of poetry, a children's book and (most incongruous of all) a first novel. The implication of that last category is that, by its nature, it is special - or at least deserving of encouragement.

How can it be compared with the work of an established author? If both books are judged by the same criteria, why is the first-novel winner on the final list at all?

Picking the biography was difficult enough. There were three category judges, and each of us was required to nominate four titles from our initial reading list.

Much against my will, Robert Skidelsky's John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946 was ruled out because it was the omnibus version of the three volumes published during the previous ten years.

But - despite the undoubted quality of the category winner, John Guy's Life of Mary Queen of Scots - Skidelsky's Keynes was the one nominee I would gamble will still be in print 50 years from now.

Excluding it seemed to be confirmation that I was engaged not so much in a literary event as a marketing exercise.

Some of the goods in the shop window were well worth promoting. The Whitbread - like other such awards - not only popularises the particular shortlisted titles but also book-buying in general. It may even promote reading itself.

But that was not the object of the carefully managed operation. Once we had produced the biography shortlist, we then helped produce a 150-word precis of the four "winners".

I felt I was an agency copywriter. Not for the books - which would not have been so bad - but for the Whitbread Book Award.

The organisers were admirably efficient. And efficiency required the judges receiving a large number of letters. Every one concluded with the stern injunction that we were not to reveal the Whitbread secrets - shortlist, category winners and Crufts' style champion of champions - until the appointed day.

We all obeyed and the tactic worked magnificently. At well-regulated intervals, news of the Whitbread spread across the serious newspapers. It all provided me with the consolation that I was personally breaking new ground: I had never been involved in corporate advertising before.

Roy Hattersley is visiting professor of politics at Sheffield University.

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