Why Can't Judges Pick Books We Want to Read? as the Booker Prize Short List Is Announced Today, One Author Asks-

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Byline: TIM LOTT

HERE'S a brief quiz that tells you everything you need to know, historically, about the Booker Prize.

Question 1: What do these books have in common?

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Birdsong, High Fidelity, London Fields, Trainspotting, The Buddha Of Suburbia, What A Carve Up!, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Question 2: What do these books have in common?

Moon Tiger, The Conservationist, In a Free State, the Elected Member, Saville, Offshore, G.

The answer, of course, to Question 1 is that none of these marvellous, thoughtful and very popular books were even short-listed for the Booker.

The answer, of course, to Question 2 is that all of them were not only short-listed, but actually won the Booker. Ever read any of them? Can you actually name any of the authors?

Thought not.

The Booker prize has, for much of its history, been anthrax for the average reader.

Whether you stumbled dutifully out to buy Keri Hulme's The Bone People, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient or Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, one thing you could be guaranteed of: you might come out of the experience feeling cleverer, or more high-toned, but you're unlikely to have had much of an enjoyable time.

Furthermore, you are unlikely to have read anything contemporary, or that has anything to say about England today (though you might get a scent of Dublin or Glasgow). Rather as British art abandoned painting, for decades British writing abandoned story.

Plot, good characters and God forbid, humour, have not only been largely absent from the list of Booker triumphs - they are positively reasons for exclusion, it seems sometimes.

This, it is worth pointing out, is very much at odds with great modern American writing.

Updike, Heller, Roth, De Lillo, E L Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Anne Tyler, Pete Dexter, Richard Price, Jonathan Franzen - I could carry on for some time - all manage to combine contemporaneity, humour, accessibility and intelligence.

In England, on the rare occasion when something along those lines gets written, it proves popular, but the Booker judges are almost bound to ignore it completely.

But at last, change is in the air. After the triumph of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, it appears that the criteria for being a fine author are not so narrow as to exclude the possibility of being genuinely entertaining, even contemporary. Today we will see the short list for this year, but already the long list contains a number of genuinely promising titles that those without a doctorate in English Literature (I get by on an E-grade A-level) could unquestioningly get something out of.

MONICA Ali's Brick Lane, Jazz Etc by John Murray, S ome t h i n g Might Happen by Julie Myerson, Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre - all these books have a freshness, a humour and a vitality about them which the Booker judges, if they really want to make themselves relevant in the era of the Big Read and the increasingly relevant Whitbread Prize, should look upon favourably.

Of course, to be fair to the Booker judges, the prize can only, to a certain extent, reflect what is out there in the bookshops, and for a long period, particularly during the 1980s - seen by some as the heyday of the Booker for winners like Midnight's Children, Oscar and Lucinda and The Remains of the Day - there really was not much to write home about. …

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