Making book on the Booker

Snide critics, side bets, broadcasts of unphotogenic writers hacking away at duck -- the Booker Prize ceremony may not be the Oscars, but it's as British as all get-out.

Published October 29, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It was the bookies, rather than the book commentators, who were right about the Booker this year. The man who sets the odds for William Hill, the licensed betting office, thought from the start that Ian McEwan had the best chance of winning Britain's most prestigious literary prize for "Amsterdam," a short political fable. Interviewed on television last night on his way into the Booker awards dinner at London's Guild Hall, the bookmaker explained how the U.K.'s critics had gotten squarely behind Beryl Bainbridge for her Crimean War novel, "Master Georgie," thus edging Bainbridge into the position of favorite.

Hold on.

"Bookmaker interviewed on television on the way into a literary awards dinner"? Try parsing that sentence in American terms -- betting? on a book prize? that's televised? -- and it makes no sense at all. To understand it you have to realize that in Britain books are glamorous, television is high culture and gambling has a fond, permanent place in the national heart. (BBC Radio's highbrow morning news program gives a racing tip daily to its listeners. I am waiting for this broadcasting scandal to be exposed.) The pages of newsprint devoted to the "horse race" that is Britain's Booker Prize give prominent place to the bookies' odds, right up to the day of decision.

It is fair to say that the Booker Prize has a prominence in London's cultural calendar akin to that of the Oscars in Los Angeles. On the weekend before the prize, literary editors at many newspapers speculated rather pointlessly about the preferences of the judges, the way people do about the Academy: who might get the sympathy vote (that would be four times-shortlisted Beryl Bainbridge, who has never won); who might be the dark horse (first novelist Magnus Mills, who has been tagged "the bus driver novelist," though "The Restraint of Beasts" has nothing to do with buses); or whether Ian McEwan might win on the Al Pacino "Scent of a Woman" model, for a novel generally agreed to be less than his best, but in recognition of the fact that he should have won for "The Godfather." I mean: for "Black Dogs" or "The Comfort of Strangers," both of which made earlier shortlists.

And if the ceremony is not watched by millions around the globe, as the Oscars are, it is watched by devotees of Channel Four, which this year offered hours of Booker coverage and a roundtable discussion on the eve of the prize in addition to the live broadcast of the ceremonies themselves. Both were chaired by benevolent pouffy-haired arts programmer Melvyn Bragg -- a good leftie recently awarded a peerage by the Blair government. The preview program featured Germaine Greer scoffing at the Booker Prize as merely a successful marketing ploy, and Edmund White making a polite argument for the prize to be opened up to Americans, who are the single English-speaking group not eligible for the prize.

The show on the night itself is an uneasy bit of cultural theater. What could be less televisual than a literary dinner? It's not as though the camera can scan the audience, looking for stars; so instead we have Melvyn and a panel discussing the shortlisted books one by one, intercut with occasional shots of the Guild Hall, where 400 literati in black tie are "sawing away at their duck," as one commentator put it. "From the floor" we have occasional interviews with, for instance, Tim Waterstone, owner of Britain's most successful bookstore chain, who revels cheerfully in the fact that Booker winners' sales increase by five- or sixfold; or with Chris Smith, Blair's minister of culture (why don't we have one of those?), who says with a politician's enthusiasm, "I hope this prize will encourage more people to get out and read!" -- a curiously active formulation.

Around the table, the commentators were merciless. If in America our anxiety is about "dumbing down," in Britain there is a legitimate concern about what might be called "smartening up": critics who so delight in their knack for the putdown that they find little joy in praising anything. When commentator Robert Harris, author of "Fatherland," gamely tried to defend Martin Booth's "The Industry of Souls," an uplifting story about the gulags (all right, it did sound fairly dodgy), he was all but sneered off the screen, causing him to protest, "Oh, you're all so metropolitan!" Savage satirist Will Self, who has never himself been shortlisted for the prize, took pleasure in dismissing Julian Barnes' "England, England" as suffering from the "terrible English problem of whimsy and niceness," and McEwan's "Amsterdam," which, he growled, was too short to be a novel and should be called "a screenel" or "a novplay." Self and Harris proceeded to get into a comical tussle over the transvestite narrator of Irishman Patrick McCabe's "Breakfast on Pluto" ("After 'The Crying Game,' the tranny Troubles story could be considered a genre of its own," Self said.) But all, including Melvyn, agreed that Beryl -- lyrical, witty, economical Beryl -- really ought to win.

Poor Beryl. "Always the bridesmaid ..." as more than a few headlines had it when she lost. But as the chairman of this year's Booker judges, former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd (picture James Baker handing over the Pulitzer and you have an idea of the strangeness of it) announced that McEwan had won the prize, "a gasp" went up in the Guild Hall, according to today's scandalized papers, and another Booker legend was born.

It happens every year. Regardless of the outcome -- whether the winner is populist Roddy Doyle or obscure literary craftsman James Kelman -- someone is outraged, someone has been disappointed. The ritual is in the handwringing. McEwan's "Amsterdam," which received very good reviews just weeks ago (novelist Alain de Botton described it as "a pitiless study of the darker aspects of male psychology"), is suddenly bemoaned as thin and unworthy. McEwan himself was graceful in success, as Bainbridge was in defeat: The two exchanged an affectionate hug, and McEwan described her as having "a great heart." Will Self was not so gracious. "The decision stinks," he said bluntly. "It's a shabby compromise." But that's the English for you: afraid to tell you what they really think.

By Sylvia Brownrigg

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of a novel, "The Metaphysical Touch," and of a short-story collection, "Ten Women Who Shook the World," that will be published later this year.She is a frequent contributor to Salon Books.

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