20 agosto 2004

What has Tibor Fischer learnt from judging this year's Booker Prize? That publishers don't have a clue about books – or bribes

One of the most puzzling phenomena about the success of publishing in this country is the publishers themselves. Once, on a slow day, a senior literary agent (Nobel laureate in his stable) wagered his colleagues that he could sell anything to anyone. They could pull any manuscript out of the slush pile and name any editor, he boasted, and he'd do the deal.

The deal was for "a substantial six-figure sum" – and the book didn't fare badly in the end either. I kept thinking of this story (not in the least apocryphal) as I digested the 126 novels that, as a judge for this year's Man Booker Prize, I was required to read, because it's clear most publishers don't have a clue what they're doing.

Ordinarily, when we say: "I think this book is better than that one," what we mean essentially is: "I enjoyed the former more than the latter."

Taste: there's no escape. Nevertheless, there are books that I don't like, but I can see they are proficiently written and that others might enjoy them. Yet some entries were so execrable I reckoned they must have been submitted as a joke.

Those that were a discredit to the industry numbered no more than half a dozen. More remarkable was the number of novels that were pointless. Not bad, not reproachable in any way except one: they were utterly nondescript (mind you, there's always been a clique in literary London who feel that real literature should be dry, colourless, a bit of a penance – if you're enjoying it, it can't be literature). I'd estimate nearly a third of the submissions fell into this category.

Spotting talent's a doddle. Lawrence Norfolk and I edited the New Writing 8 anthology; we debuted four writers. Three of them – Dan Rhodes, Hari Kunzru and David Mitchell – promptly went on to the Granta Best of Young British list, international success, awards, groupies, etc. It's that easy if you have judgement.

I can understand publishers putting out something unbrilliant out of loyalty to an author (admittedly unlikely) or putting it out because they've already paid for it, but I can't understand them sending it in to the Man Booker.

Publishers usually indulge in a great deal of secrecy, and, indeed, lying about which titles they submit (each imprint gets two entries, plus anything by a previous winner or a short-listee of the past 10 years), so let me show my solidarity to my fellow novelists: get in touch and I'll tell you whether you were entered.

So what about the good books? I became acquainted with some authors I hadn't got round to, met some old friends and was introduced to some newcomers.

The small presses contributed some colourful material: David Madsen's witty A Box of Dreams and the comely wackiness of Suhayl Saadi's Psychoraag (although if you aren't familiar with the Asian Dub Foundation and if you have trouble understanding Glaswegian, it's not for you). An intriguing insight into Castro's Cuba was afforded by Rey Ruben's Patria, which, unlike many entries, had wonderful stories to tell, but was let down by its prose.

No, regrettably, I suspect the real contenders will come from the big houses. This has been a bumper year for Henry James. Both Colm Toibin and David Lodge have produced entertaining novels inspired by the Master's life (if you want a laugh, go for the Lodge). In addition, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty has a Jamesian workout in almost every chapter.

The old lags have dun good. VS Naipaul, James Hamilton-Paterson and Justin Cartwright are, however, matched by their younger peers. Neil Cross, Philip Hensher and Nicola Barker all get stuck into present-day Britain with gusto and flair, and then there's David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which gets stuck into just about everything. My contemporaries Nicholas Shakespeare and Louis De Bernieres play away in East Germany and Turkey respectively and take on some heavy history.

Two first novels, Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean and The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi, appealed to me. But there are many other goodies, and in any case, the other judges may not agree with me.

What have I learned? Distaste for the middle class was one common denominator. Writers are entitled to berate and conjure whatever they want, but it was curious to see how the middle class (particularly the white, home-counties middle class) got clobbered: racist, xenophobic, childkillers or just generally evil.

Any prostitute, beggar, asylum-seeker or non-caucasian was likely to have a heart of gold. The conformity was such that I felt sometimes that only members of the Socialist Workers Party were allowed to publish novels (I never want to see the words "miners" and "strike" adjacent again on the page).

Being a judge, strangely, appears to impress more than getting short-listed for the Booker and, take it from me, it's a lot harder to write a novel than to read one; but the prospect of reading over a hundred novels seems to terrify most people, even those in the trade.

With no job and no kids to look after, I didn't find it at all taxing. I simply spent a few months on a balcony in Budapest tanning and perusing, but I must pay tribute to the fortitude of my fellow judges who do have other responsibilities, but who still bayed for more at the call-in meeting.

Finally, judging isn't that hard. Only a few key questions ought to be weighed up. Is this novel written by a friend of mine? A good friend of mine? What could they do for me in the future? Would they deliver? Isn't this novel by that reviewer who panned my last book?

And as for sleaze or corruption, what I'd like to know is: where are they? My offshore bank account is in a consumptive state. I haven't even had a free lunch, let alone the suggestion of a holiday. The most damning charge I can make against British publishers is that no one has tried to nobble me.

What sort of feeble bumblers are they? In any other country or in any other business, the sweeteners and largesse would have been flowing my way. The Man Booker Prize is the most important literary prize in the English-speaking world; it can make a huge difference to the short-listed writers (as I discovered when my first novel, Under the Frog, was selected, after having been rejected 56 times – publishers, eh?).

I believe that its prestige should be measured in terms of the backhander I get. So I'm giving publishers a final chance to redeem themselves. The Booker longlist is announced on August 26. My rates are as follows: £5,000 (untraceable fifties, upfront) for a long-listing, and £10,000 for a short-listing.

Obviously, I can't guarantee a winner, but for £20,000, I promise to do my best (and I'm bigger than the other judges). I'll be by the phone.

[From the Telegraph]

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