BOOKER PRIZE FEATURE
The Booker, the UK’s biggest literary prize, features two Scottish novelists this year. Ann Donald talks to ALAN TAYLOR formerly of The List, now of The Scotsman about his heady experiences as one of the five judges who decide the winner.
uestion: Why do nearly one million television viewers tune in annually to a competition sponsored by a food conglomerate ‘with a strong commit- ment to poultry breeding’ which used to own the rights to the childrens’ cartoon character SuperTed?
Answer: To hear the winner of the most presti- gious literary prize in the UK being announced and the beaming author receive a hefty cheque for £20,000.
Booker plc set up The Booker Prize For Fiction in 1968 partly as a tax write-off but more iaudably to reward merit, raise public awareness of serious fiction and, of course, increase sales of books. The 1994 shortlist is notable for two reasons: never before have two Scots been in the running for the same prize and secondly, never has there been such a brouhaha about the number of supposedly ‘unknown’ authors who number a Tanzanian, an Orcadian and a gay novelist among them.
To reveal the backstage secrets of this beano of literary luminaries, our man in the field and Booker judge. Alan Taylor was lured from his champagne lunch at the Saville Club to divulge the nitty gritty. ‘I took three weeks off work to read the 130 books put forward and i can tell you it was a mindboggling, numbing experience,’ comments a remarkably unscathed Taylor. ‘lt’s only then that you realise how many truly bad books there are.’ To furnish the former editor of The List and his merry band of fellow judges with suitable reading matter. every publisher in Britain was invited to submit up to three titles (free of charge). resulting in this year’s record number of entries. The team then whittle down the good, the bad and the downright awful to a shortlist of six. before the final meeting on the day of the Booker Prize itself. According to our insider. Mr Taylor, these high-powered, intellec- tual rendezvous involve ‘drinking lots of wine. thinking “Oh Christ" and commiserating with each other’.
So what are the criteria that made Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha-Ha-Ha or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight ’3 Children or Keri Hulme’s The Bone People Booker prizewinners? Martyn Goff, prize administrator explains, ‘the simple remit is the best book of the year. Obviously the judges are looking for a well-written book with good narrative power, 3-D characters, a good use of English . . . and then something else that turns a book from being a jolly good novel into a prizewinning one.’ Alan Taylor puts it more succinctly. ‘1 think the most important criterion
is. would you still want to read this book in 25 years‘?’
The heavyweights such as VS. Naipaul. Thomas Keneally. Kingsley Amis and Nadine Gordimer weren't in the running for the shortlist this year. but a heartening number of Scottish novelists including Janice Galloway. Candia MacWilliam. Alan Massie. James Kelman and George Mackay Brown did make the grade. As Taylor reveals. ‘Therc were about live or six Scots in the last twenty books. which is quite a high proportion.’ He attributes this to a number of factors. "th Scottish stuff is much more powerful. idiosyncratic. more original and more challenging than anything that’s coming out of London. it seems to me that Kelman is probably the best philosophical novelist working in the world at the moment and i know that for certain judges. George’s work was like a bolt of lightning. to have someone who can write so clearly. so perceptively and so magically.‘
For some members of a Londoncentric press and a bookselling trade still reeling delirioust from Roddy Doyle’s record—breaking sales, this year’s selection has been dismissed as a ‘Mogadon list' and ‘worthy but dismal’. Certainly reports from the major Glasgow and Edinburgh bookshops bear this out to a certain extent. Sales of Kelman. Mackay Brown and Hollinghurst are ‘heaithy‘ but ‘there is zero interest in the other three’. Yet this is to ignore the importance of the Booker beyond the parochial environs of Britain. As Martyn Goff explains. the reverberations are felt more sharply in the former Commonwealth countries. ‘Once the likes of Peter Carey. Thomas Keneally. Keri Hulme. Margaret Atwood and
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had all won the Booker. it gave a tremendous shot in the arm to Australian, New Zealand. Canadian and Indian fiction.’ he says with gusto.
With Ladbrokes the bookmakers currently offering odds of 2»l and 5—1 on Kelman and Mackay Brown respectively. it could be that the next recipient of the ‘Booker Booster‘ will be Scotland. CI '
The Late Show Booker Prize programme, 8pm Tue 1 1 Oct, BBC2
George Mackay Brown shortlisted for his novel Beside the Ocean of Time
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Alan Taylor selects his personal shortlist of books he thinks should have won the prize.
I Anthony Powell: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971)
This is the tenth volume in Powell’s wholly delightful and absolutely absorbing ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ series. The prose is creamy, the wit effervescent, the syntax sophisticated and the sense of the ridiculous marvellously maintained. Powell has created the greatest gallery of characters in 20th century fiction Including, of course, the comparable Widmerpool and the writer X. Trapnel, who shuffles on stage to make an unforgettable cameo appearance.
I Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness (1974)
When he died a couple or so years ago, Durrell was rewarded with some incredibly mean obits. But his time will come again. The Alexandria Duartet Is such a seductive book, it was almost inevitable that its successor, The Avignon Dulntet, of which Monsieur Is the overture. would have a tough time critically. Yet the lusciousness of the language and intricacy of the plot, Involving the Knights Templar, the Gnostlcs and Freud, could only have been the work of one man. Also, It’s very sexy.
I Graham Greene: The Human Factor (1978)
i presume the only reason GG didn’t win the Booker was because he never allowed himself to be entered. The Human Factor harks back to novels such as Our Man In Havana, the common backdrop being the Secret Service. Here, Maurice Castle, an agent just this side of superannuation, ls placed in a classic dilemma, having
to decide between his love of wife Sarah, an African, and his loyalty to his country. In Greenelaed, it’s no contest. If I remember rightly, this Is one of the few novels to feature a box of Maltesers.
I Anthony Burgess: Eartth Powers (1980)
A real roving novel, this. Joyce’s Paris, Buchenwald, Hollywood, witchcraft in Malaysia; it’s allover the place. But there’s no better company on a journey than Burgess. It's not his best book -I prefer the Malayan trilogy - but from the first hypnotic sentence: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was In bed with my catamite,’ etc, he has you by the scruff of the neck.
I Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)
What can you say? it fell Into the year In which Midnight's Children edged out D.M. Thomas’s White Hotel. Scandalously, Lanark wasn’t even shortlisted. Duncan Thaw, its main character, will endure and resonate through Scottish literature, as have the Justified Sinner, Jekyll and Hyde, and Jean Brodie. Gray is the most Inventive novelist of our times, wonderfully playful and lconociastlc, a terrific mimic and - a trait missing In most modern writers - very knowledgeable about a lot of weird things. ‘
I Muriel Spark: A Far Cry form Kenslngton (1988)
Some reviewers were sniffy about this late Spark. Perhaps her depiction of Hector Bartlett, a ‘plsseur de cople', struck too close to home. Tough. The depiction of 1950s literary london Is delicious and the comedy, as ever, ls ripe and as black as a flight recorder’s box. Nobody does dialogue better than ner. Mrs Wins, the fat protagonist, ls asked if she is losing weight. 'Shall you be thin?’ ‘Dnly normal, I hope,’ she replies. If It was up to me Spark would win the Booker every time she published a new novel.
The List 7—20 October 199413