Friday, October 22, 2004

Booker and all that

You are probably aware that, on Wednesday evening last, a writer was handed a cheque for £50,000 -- and that, it has to be admitted, is a considerable sum of money. This particular cheque was handed to the winner of the Man Booker prize, which is (I think) the UK's largest prize for writers.

The Man Booker prize goes exclusively to literary novels; science fiction, crime, fantasy and romance are not normally considered by the judges, though there are exceptions: Harry Potter got on the short list one year.

Is it my imagination, or did the whole thing get less coverage than usual this year? Maybe it's just me not bothering to read about it, because the entire enterprise is, I have to say, a matter of complete indifference to me. Long years of experience have proved that I do not usually enjoy literary novels. But the whole Booker business did seem to be rather more low-key than usual this year.

As for the winner, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, even the literary editor of the Times didn't like it much, claiming that Colm Toibin's The Master was infinitely superior.

Well, that's as maybe. I doubt whether I would enjoy either of them.

It is worth noting here, however, that the other genres also have their prizes. The Crime Writers' Association award 'Daggers' of varying quality, and the top prize comes with a cheque for £3000. Similarly the Romantic Novelists' Association gives an annual prize for the best romantic novel of the year (or it used to -- the web site looks a bit out of date). And the British Science Fiction Association likewise selects a 'best novel' of the year. If you're looking for something to read in one or other of these genres, the various short lists form a good place to start.

Regrettably, none of these otherwise healthy genres can compete with the Booker in terms of publicity, and the chief reason for that is no doubt the relative size of their prizes. If only their management committees could rustle up a sponsor who was prepared to offer £50,000 a year for five years or so, perhaps they too could feature on BBC2.

Meanwhile, I hold the view that someone ought to organise an Alternative Booker Prize. After all, there was an Alternative Miss World contest at one point: it was for transvestites, as I recall, and seems to have been rather more fun than the real thing. Perhaps the same might be true of an alternative Booker.

Here are some suggestions for the rules. Entry should be restricted to mss which come accompanied by at least 40 letters of rejection from publishers and agents. Only the first 10 pages may be submitted (more being entirely superfluous, as any slush-pile reader knows). Entries to be posted on a web site somewhere. And voting to be by popular acclaim. The prize would probably have to be the sheer fame and glory.

The winner, I suspect, might be at least as interesting as some of the books entered for the real thing.

By the way, I am two thirds of the way through Neal Stephenson's The System of the World (part three of his Baroque trilogy). And the idea that there is, somewhere on the Booker short list, a novel which is even half as bold, interesting, inventive, scholarly, funny, and just all-round entertaining, is, I fear, too silly to be worth discussing.

And no, I am not about to labour my way through the Booker short list in order to verify my confident assertion. But thank you for making the suggestion. Should you wish to make a comparison yourself, Uncle Ted Smart will sell you all six of the Booker short list for a mere £30.

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