Why You Can't Beat a Good Book (If You Still Have Enough Imagination to Enjoy It); as the Publishing World Prepares for Another Booker Prize

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Byline: GERALD WARNER

READ any good books lately? People do not ask one another that question as often as they used to. But appearances are deceptive; despite the rise of television, video and the Internet, bookworms are still deeply embedded in our society.

Every year we are told the novel is dead (usually by those who are doing their best to kill it off), but book sales tell us otherwise. This month is the time of the year when literary activity peaks. Yesterday the Frankfurt Book Fair opened - a magnet for publishers, agents and everyone else involved in the writing industry.

The annual Booker Prize, due to be awarded next week, has become the Oscar or Bafta ceremony to the world of fiction, but increasingly it looks like a problem rather than a solution. The Booker has acquired a reputation for honouring authors whose writing reflects some minority culture; or is experimental in form; or is written in so opaque and introverted a style as to be obscure to readers.

In plain terms, it often favours the self-indulgent and the politically correct at the expense of those writers whose novels have an arresting plot and vivid characterisation, contained within the basic discipline of a beginning, a middle and an end. The same kind of snobbery based on pseudery which, in the visual arts, has given us piles of bricks and elephant dung at the Tate Gallery has also invaded the world of fiction.

It is not quite so bad - yet. There are commercial constraints which inhibit publishers from retreating into the total absurdity in which heavily subsidised art galleries can indulge. Writers of merit have won the Booker and there are signs that this year's shortlist is more credible - Michael Frayn is among the half-dozen finalists.

The real value of the Booker to its recipient is not the [pounds sterling]26,000 prize but the boost to sales. The prize is announced just as people are buying Christmas presents. Yet the suspicion lingers that people purchase the Booker winning title to ornament their coffee tables, or to give to friends, rather than with the keen expectation of a good read. Cynics might claim the legend 'Booker shortlist choice' on a dustjacket is a useful warning to steer clear, unless you suffer from insomnia.

We in Scotland are in no position to sneer at metropolitan hype - we have contributed James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. The plot of Welsh's recent stage play does not lend itself to discussion in a family newspaper. To cram the F-word 3,000 times into a single novel, as Kelman is credited with doing by conscientious counters, is a kind of achievement, but one that belongs more to the world of students squeezing record number of bodies into a telephone kiosk than to the world of letters.

The greatest threats to the popular-

ity of books today are posed by publishers and teachers. …