Tuesday, January 22, 2019

a news service

1987

In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, James F. English notes that, “to most observers, cultural prizes represent an external imposition on the world of art rather than an expression of its own energies. The rise of prizes over the past century, and especially their feverish proliferation in recent decades, is widely seen as one of the more glaring symptoms of a consumer society run rampant, a society that can conceive of artistic achievement only in terms of stardom and success, and that is fast replacing a rich and varied cultural world with a shallow and homogeneous McCulture based on the model of network TV. Prizes, from this vantage point, are not a celebration but a contamination of the most precious aspects of art.”

English argues it’s all about cultural power and how that power has shifted in recent years. English is a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the book takes a broad, detailed and pretty thorough if academic approach to the topic including the historical context going back to Greek drama and arts competitions in the 6th century BC. The tremendous growth of prizes in the 20th century is “the fact that they are the single best instrument for negotiating transactions between cultural and economic, cultural and social, or cultural and political capital—which is to say that they are our most effective institutional agents of capital intraconversion.” I did warn you that he’s an academic.

Rather than take the Prizes-are-bad side or Prizes-serve-publishing position, English argues “the more crippling naiveté rests with the masters of condescension, who have failed to consider their own position in the larger system. Modern cultural prizes cannot fulfill their social functions unless authoritative people—people whose cultural authority is secured in part through these very prizes—are thundering against them. The vast literature of mockery and derision with respect to prizes must, in my view, be seen as an integral part of the prize frenzy itself, and not as in any way advancing an extrinsic critique.” He insists he isn’t going to take sides but will do an “analysis of the whole system of symbolic give and take.”

Hmmm. Does this assertion make me a collaborator, and you too, Gentle Reader? Maybe. But what I am attempting in this ever-increasing document is an extrinsic critique. James English’s job is dependant on the literary industry. Mine isn’t. And here’s a kicker—the anthology on grief that George and I published doesn’t qualify for any prizes, not ones that I know of, anyway.

English argues that prizes provide “an institutional basis for exercising, or attempting to exercise, control over the cultural economy, over the distribution of esteem and reward on a particular cultural field—over what may be recognized as worthy of special notice…The prize places a certain power (very widely underestimated by sociologists of culture) in the hands of cultural functionaries—those who organize and administer it behind the scenes, oversee the selection of members of judges, attract sponsors or patrons, make rules and exceptions to rules.” In Canada which institutions are welding the power? The Canada Council. The Writers’ Trust. Griffin Prize advisory board. And within those institutions, who is welding the power? Prizes give the impression that it’s the jury, but that is not necessarily so.

A few years ago a board member from The Writers’ Trust phoned me and asked if I would agree to participate in a survey. The board was concerned with branding and whether The Writers’ Trust brand and logo had good visibility. A professional consulting firm was compiling information (and I’m pretty sure this work was done pro bono). I was rather horrified. I think not-for-profits, charities and NGOs should be known for the work they do, not for the prominence of their names or slickness of their logos. Be warned; don’t show up at my door asking for funds for World Vision unless you want an earful.

Administering prizes is a lot of work, and that work requires funding. In The Economy of Prestige, English reports on the Orange Prize that at the time of publication had an annual prize of 30,000 British Pounds. Peter Raymond of the cellular phone company Orange PLC that sponsors the prize told English the company spends 225,000 British pounds annually to administer and support the prize. English also reports “The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which presents a cash award of just $20,000 to its first-prize winner, costs more than $3 million to run.”

English further argues that administrators have another vested interest, “the dominant optic of art-versus-money neglects to take account of the intermediaries, the awards administrators or functionaries whose specific interests coincide neither with those of artists nor with those of publishers, produces, and marketers. Their immediate concerns are neither aesthetic nor commercial but are directed toward maximizing the visibility and reputation of their particular prize among all the prizes in the field.” The challenges for administrators are many, but include maximizing the investment of the financial sponsor. Is that the reason the board of The Writers’ Trust is concerned with branding? When it comes to literary prizes has the line between philanthropy and marketing disappeared? Is it possible that sponsors are climbing onto the literary prize wagon because literary prizes are, when so much of the work is done by volunteers, cheaper to sponsor than sports events?

James English is an open market advocate. How much of his approach is fashioned by his well-funded chair in a consumer society where celebrity is the norm? How much are Canadians, and the industry of CanLit being swept along? I was once with a group of people taking Pierre Berton out to dinner before a reading. It was a small restaurant in a small Ontario town. Half way through our meal an older man approached the table, “Mr. Berton, I’d just like to shake your hand. I’m never read any of your books, but I greatly admire you.” Front Page Challenge watcher, I figured.

English insists that prizes are essential to the literary economy. Prizes birth new prizes. The more there are the more there need to be since “each new prize that fills a gap or void in the system of awards defines at the same time a lack that will justify and indeed produce another prize.” If the system treats art as a commodity then it is acceptable to use business practices. The publisher of The Bishop’s Man placed a call to his printer from the dinner table at the Giller, ordering 40,000 copies.

In a New Yorker review by Louis Menand of The Economy of Prestige, Menand also looks at The World Republic of Letters by Pascale Casanova and concludes: “Between them, English and Casanova list the features of the world-literature prototype: a trauma-and-recovery story, with magic-realist elements, involving abuse and family dysfunction, that arrives at resolution by the invocation of spiritual or holistic verities. If you add in a high level of technical and intellectual sophistication, this is a pretty accurate generic description of a novel by Toni Morrison.”

Or Salmon Rushie, or Keri Hulme, or Peter Carey, or…

1987 Jury: P D James, you’d have to live under a rock not to know P D James. Lady Selina Hastings, writer, journalist, one-time assistant literary editor on the Daily Telegraph and literary editor of Harper’s & Queen, and biographer of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Rosamond Lehmann. Allan Massie is a well-known Scottish journalist, sports writer and novelist. Trevor McDonald is a Trinidadian-born British newsreader and journalist, news presenter with ITN, notable for having been the first black news reader in the UK. John B Thompson—I couldn’t find anyone who seemed a likely fit so I wrote to the Booker Archive and the following information was supplied from the press release for 1988 announcing the jury: “John B. Thompson has been Director of Radio for IBA since 1973. Previous jobs have included the Daily Express Drama Critic; Editor of Time & Tide; Editor of the Observer Colour Magazine; and Editorial Director of BPC Publishing.”

1987 Shortlist: Iris Murdoch-The Book and the Brotherhood; Nina Bawden, Circles of Deceit; Peter Ackroyd Chatterton; Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah; Brian Moore,  The Color of Blood; Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger.

Iris Murdoch-The Book and the Brotherhood UBC

If an editor removed the description of characters and what they are wearing for various events, little of which really matters to the narrative, this 601-page book would be about 450 pages. The main cast of 14 characters with very complicated interrelations are all introduced in the first few pages with clear-as-mud explanations such as, “Tamar’s mother Violet, never married, was the child of Gerard’s father’s deplorable young brother Benjamin Hernshaw, also never married, who abandoned Violet’s mother.” So another book that requires a crib sheet of characters in order to follow along.

George is reading Justine By Lawrence Durrell. Sometimes he sets projects that force him to read books from his “Books I must read immediately” bookshelves, ones he’s often been avoiding for years. His present project is to read 25 books by writers whose surname starts with D. The Durrell novel isn’t that long, about 250 pages, but he’s been at it for ages. Whining a lot, too, if you can imagine. Often I hear him reading out sentences and groaning. You’ll remember Durrell is the guy with the “sadness the size of a cauliflower.” George, looking for sympathy, read me a paragraph. One sentence had at least five similes. “Oh yeah,” I shot back, “take this,” and read him a paragraph from my Murdoch. “Wanna trade?” He left.

It’s the usual cast of overwrought Murdoch characters, often blubbering about love. Here’s Jean who has abandoned Duncan for Crimond, the guy who is writing the “Book” of the title, “Crimond, understand, I have left a husband whom I esteem and love, and friends who will never forgive me, in order to give myself to you entirely and forever. I hereby give myself. I love you. You are the only being whom I can love absolutely with my complete self, with all my flesh and mind and heart. You are my mate, my perfect partner, and I am yours…We are, here, in this, necessary beings, like gods. As we look at each other we verify, we know, the perfection of our love, we recognize each other. Here is my life, here if need be is my death. It’s life and death, as if they were to destroy Israel—if I forget thee, O Jerusalem–”

Most of these characters have tremendous inner turmoil. Category: Murdoch Angst. These are not so much characters as symbols or embodiments of certain ideas which Murdoch can manipulate. For example, what will happen if illegitimate Tamar, daughter of a mother who was herself an illegitimate child, becomes pregnant out of wedlock? Or how will Ruth, who has devoted her life to Gerard who loved her brother Stephen who died in a car accident, respond if Crimond, who she loathes and has just abandoned her best friend, proposes marriage. Yes, it’s as contrived as it sounds.

A group of bright students at Oxford decide to fund one of their brilliant peers to write a book. Years later their beliefs have shifted but Crimond clings to Marxism. They are worried about what might be in the book, if it’s ever finished. That’s the basic plot that drives the complicated dance of these characters. They spend a lot of time musing about religion, politics, love and above all, responsibility. Murdoch takes the reader inside all their heads for these often-fretful monologues.

“History as a slaughterhouse, history as a wolf that wanders outside in the dark, an idea of history as something that has to be, even if it’s terrible, even if it’s deadly.”

The resolution, what little there is, at the end of the book comes about through witchcraft and snails. Which, I suppose, is Murdoch’s point; in the modern world one’s destiny is just as likely driven by snails as politics, religion or fate. In the later part of the 20th century the world is in transition and no one knows which way things are going.

Nina Bawden—Circles of Deceit VPL

The first chapter begins with “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I haven’t read the poem in years so went online and looked at the painting. I’d describe the painting, but William Carlos Williams does it so much better:

Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus

According to Brueghel

when Icarus fell

it was spring

a farmer was ploughing

his field

the whole pageantry

of the year was

awake tingling

near

the edge of the sea

concerned

with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings’ wax

unsignificantly

off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning

In some ways Bawden is trying to do with the novel form what the painting achieves—how life goes on despite and beside disaster. In the Brueghel, as Auden describes, Icarus is a small splash in the lower right corner—not the focus. In the novel, the nameless middle-aged narrator is a painter but he specializes in copying masters rather than producing his own work. His much-loved wife Helen confesses to an affair, which leads to petty fights and eventual divorce. The painter remarries a woman barely out of her teens who has a young and needy son she sometimes abuses. Here the Icarus character is Tim, the tortured schizophrenic son of the painter and Helen. The novel considers love, fidelity, guilt, nature of art versus forgery, how our own lives distort the larger picture and how hard it is to see beyond our own circle of deceit. More often than not, lies are told out of kindness rather than malice. Interesting idea, well executed and very readable. Understated rather than showy.

Peter Ackroyd—Chatterton VPL

Another book that explores the nature of creativity, real versus unreal, the implications of fame and fraud. And the biggie—plagiarism.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies slam poet Shane Koyczan performed his poem “We Are More.” The performance itself created an online buzz, everything from other slam poets declaring the whole slam movement had finally garnered the recognition it deserved to other poets apologizing to the world for what they saw as cliché doggerel. What everyone did seem to agree on was that the exposure would be good for Shane—let’s be very clear, good for Shane not good for poetry. Well, not necessarily good for Shane in all respects. For years there has been talk that Shane doesn’t always use his own material, and doesn’t acknowledge when he is using others’ work. With the big spotlight shinning, the caliber of Shane’s work was put under the microscope. Two videos started being posted on blogs and social networking sites. One is previous US poet laureate Billy Collins reading his poem “The Lanyard.” The other is Shane Koyczan performing a piece with a few added sentences at the beginning, but otherwise is word for word the Collins’ poem. Zachariah Wells asked the question, blatant rip off or homage?

http://zachariahwells.blogspot.com/2010/02/blatant-ripoff-or.html

A quick google search seems to indicate it has been Shane’s habit to perform the poem without acknowledgement in Ontario, Australia and Vancouver. If he gets caught, and he has, he does the big mea culpa, I-got-caught-up-in-the-performance-and-forgot-to-mention-I-didn’t-write-it routine.

Just how much do poets stand on the shoulders of the poets who have gone before? Chatterton takes on that question by cleverly using one of the most famous plagiarists of the poetry world, Thomas Chatterton. What happens when a wayword poet appropriates the past? Ackyrod is arguing that the facts are of little importance—it is the artists who capture the past, not scholars. And each generation reinvents the past to meet the needs of the present. “Chatterton knew that original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which had never occurred before.”

Chatterton himself makes an appearance in the novel, explaining, “Thus do we see in every Line an Echoe, for the truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry.” Harriet Scrope is a well-known popular novelist. But in her early career, after her first novel, she couldn’t think of another plot. She stumbled across a little known late 19th century novel and used its plot. She did the same for another couple of novels until she started using her own material exclusively. She’s spent years worried that she would one day be found out. Since she eventually does her own work is it okay that she plagiarized in her early career?

What if, suggests the novel, Chatterton hadn’t died. What if his suicide was faked and that he actually wrote most of the famous poetry of the 18th century, the best of Blake? What a concept. But the concept of the novel is more intricate and clever than I can point to in this brief blurb. On the dust jacket a review from the San Francisco Chronicle, “One of those rare literary experiments that begins almost too clever for its own good and in the end not only justifies its cleverness but transcends it.” Sounds like review fodder, but in this instance I agree. With a cast of eccentrics that would shame Dickens, this book is funny and wonderfully written. And bonus, as a post-modern work it also challenges the scholarly theories about that art form, too.

Chinua Achebe—Anthills of the Savannah VPL

James English says prizes are used as a tool to “signify belated recognition of native and minority literatures and to favor writers of strong political conviction who have become icons of moral leadership in their particular national or subnational communities: Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrision, Gunter Grass—all of whom have received multiple humanitarian awards to arrange alongside their literary trophies.” Perhaps Chinua Achebe has found his niche as The Nigerian Novelist.

Three men, chums since schooldays, are the center of the novel set in fictional Kangan. Sam, trained as a soldier, is now the head of state. His two friends, Chris and Ikem are in his inner circle, one a powerful man in the new government and the other the editor of the paper. Until the power, and the threat of losing it, goes to Sam’s head. He doesn’t have the skills to govern and is overthrown in a bloody coup. The other two men also die—Sam orders Ikem’s murder and Chris is gunned down by a man he challenges who is attempting to rape a woman.

The novel hits the themes you’d expect: power, oppression, and corruption. And, most important, how does Africa function and rejuvenate now that the whites have left? “The English have, for all practical purposes, ceased to menace the world. The real danger today is from that fat, adolescent and delinquent millionaire, America, and from all those virulent, misshapen freaks like Amin and Bokassa sired on Africa by Europe. Particularly those ones.” Structurally the novel allots 3 or 4 chapters to the viewpoint of each of the main characters, allowing for multiplicity.

Beatrice, who is the lover of Chris, realizes toward the end that those who are trying to rule the country are out of touch and don’t know their own people. Educated abroad, living privileged lifestyles they don’t connect, or really fit anywhere.

“The explanation of the tragedy of Chris and Ikem in terms of petty human calculation or personal accident had begun to give way in her throbbing mind to an altogether more terrifying but more plausible theory of premeditation. The image of Chris as just another stranger who chanced upon death on the Great North Road or Ikem as an early victim of a waxing police state was no longer satisfactory. Were they not in fact trailed travelers whose journeys from start to finish had been carefully programmed in advance by an alienated history? If so, how many more doomed voyagers were already in transit or just setting out, faces fresh with illusions of duty-free travel and happy landings ahead of them?

That was the day she broke her long silence and asked the two young men: “What must a people do to appease an embittered history?”

At the close of the novel there is a birth, and a ritual naming ceremony. But it is Beatrice and the community who name the child, and bless it, rather than the elders as would be the tradition. On the cover blurb from USA Today, “It’s a vision of social change that strikes us with the force of prophecy.” I’m not persuaded.

The combination of stilted writing style and patois made this a very difficult novel for me to climb into, particularly after the crisp writing of Chatterton. If I groaned, George, ever helpful, would say “just read it aloud.” “Oh, yeah,” I replied, “you try reading this.”

“You no see say because you no tell me, I come make another big mistake. If I for know na such big oga de for my front for that go-slow how I go come make such wahala for am? I de craze? But the thing wey confuse me properly well be that kind old car way he come de drive. I never see such!” And this is a fairly straightforward section. Since some the key information about the plot is delivered by characters speaking in patois, I frequently got lost.

Brian Moore—The Color of Blood VPL

Guest report from George Stanley:

I thought this was going to be a more serious novel than it turned out to be. The subjects — Communism, the Catholic Church — seemed to promise heady thought. But not at all. The Colour of Blood is a thriller — fast-paced, sparely narrated, cinematically imagined. The characters are fairly stereotypical; the situations, though borrowing depth from the reader’s own sense of history, develop exactly as one would expect, once we’re let in on the somewhat unlikely premise of the action.

The protagonist, Stephen Cardinal Bem, is the primate of an unamed Eastern European country (former Czechoslovaka is most likely – a district of the capital city is called Praha), sometime in the 1980s. Bem is an appealing figure, devoutly religious, but lacking in pride, humble and self-critical. In examining his conscience, he thinks: “I lack all charity.”

Bem is also a pragmatist; he has made made his peace with the Communist regime, for eminently practical reasons. “The right to have church schools, the right to publish religious literature, the right to worship freely.” He might even be called mildly pro-Communist: “[T]here has been much good in the social change. Of course we want our freedom. But the West will not help us. The West has never helped us. We are alone.”

Bem might remind the reader of a real historical figure, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, who opposed the Hungarian state in the late 1940s, but Mindszenty was a far more intransigent figure, more resembling the novel’s Archbishop Krasnoy, who wants not accommodation but an open break with the Communists.

The action begins with a failed assassination attempt on Bem. Soon after this incident, Bem is taken into “protective custody,” by persons who appear to be agents of the state Security Police (“the raincoats”).

But it gradually becomes clear that his captors are “impostors” —  ultraconservative radical Catholics, allies of Krasnoy, who seek to precipitate an uprising against the regime at a traditional Catholic festival, and need to get Bem, who would oppose such a move, out of the way. This leads to what appear in retrospect as double meanings, as when “Colonel” Poulnikov, a Catholic posing as a member of the Security Police, says to Bem, “To them (i.e., right wing Catholics), you are the prelate who betrayed your church, the cardinal who has sold out to the Communists. You have rendered unto Caesar the things that are God’s.” (These are of course Poulnikov’s own feelings.)

Bem escapes his captors, is recaptured, escapes again, is threatened twice by men with guns, as the narrative moves swiftly through the landscape, especially along its roads, in unmarked speeding cars. Here Moore is at his best, describing complex action with utmost clarity, as in a scene where a convoy of three vehicles, carrying a total of eight persons, is stopped at a military checkpoint, and things go haywire. There’s never any uncertainty about what’s happening.

The novel moves from one set piece to another. There’s a meeting with Jop, the charismatic retired leader of the miners’ union (who may recall Lech Walesa), where Moore has a former miner refer to the status quo ante: “The men has to walk three miles to the pithead and their pay didn’t start until they lifted a pick to the rock. The good old days. The capitalist times when a man worked ten hours a day for forty droschen.” (Moore himself seems mildly pro-Communist.)

Then there’s the required tete-a-tete between Bem and the civilized (but sold out to Moscow) Prime Minister (he and Bem both went to the same Jesuit school). The real villain, Vrona, the Minister for Internal Security, i.e., the KGB man, is outside the door of this private meeting, and Moore gives him the novel’s best (unspoken) line: When Vrona enters the room, the PM says, “‘I suppose you’re aware of what’s been said.’ Vrona hesitated, almost shyly, then nodded and smiled.”

But once we know the names of the players, and the political positions they stand for, the novel proceeds in an unsurprising fashion, like a fairly dull chess game. It comes down to a standoff between the Cardinal and the Archbishop — outcome predictable.

There is one extraneous character in the novel, really present, due to the reality effect of Moore’s third-person narration: God. At the mass which comes at the climax of the action, “the celebrant ate the wafer of bread and drank the wine that had been changed into the body and blood of Christ.” I looked for some qualification, say “that he believed had been changed,” but it wasn’t there. God’s presence gives the Cardinal (and the novel) a fleeting but unwarranted glow of profundity.

For me the novel was immensely readable, particularly after the Achebe, but ultimately thin and predictable, to the point of being annoying. I’d suggest Moore’s name got him onto the list, not the quality of the novel.

Here’s the bio on the bookjacket:

“Brian Moore has received, in Great Britain, the W. H. Smith Prize and the James Tait Memorial Award; in Canada, the Quebec Literary Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (twice); and in the United States, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a special award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Jean, live in Malibu, California.”

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger VPL WINNER

Contrast the Moore book bio to that for this Lively novel:

“Penelope Lively was born in Cairo in 1933 and spent her childhood there. She holds a degree in modern history from Oxford University and is the author of six acclaimed novels, including Treasures of Time, The Road to Lichfield, and According to Mark. She divides her time between north Oxforshire and London.”

Using the Moore bio model, I’ll write a new one for Lively:

Penelope Lively has received the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Prize, the Southern Arts Literature Prize and is an Arts Council National Book Winner. Her novels have twice been short-listed for the prestigious Booker award and she is a member of the Royal Society of Literature.

I read this novel years ago and didn’t remember a thing about it. 50 pages in none of it seems familiar. Around page 120 the atmosphere seems a bit familiar, but not any details. Which is odd, because it is a fine novel, well and cleverly crafted. Claudia is a writer of popular histories who has achieved some fame and stature, now in hospital dying. In her mind she is writing a history of the world. The narrative is mostly Claudia’s telling of her life story, with occasional scenes of moments in the hospital, but the context for her personal story is the momentum of the 20th century. While most of the novel is narrated by Claudia, frequently the same scene is retold by another character. The novel is an examination of memory and history. History, argues the narrator and the novel, is personal. “Time and the universe lie around in our minds. We are sleeping histories of the world.”

(It’s Margaret Thatcher’s England, again. Thatcher once asked a student why he was studying history when he could be doing something productive, making products. It does seem that novels from the Thatcher years have a high concern with the place and value of history.)

Claudia is a real pain—a conceited smart aleck, who is rude, has little interest in her only child, Iris, and goes out of her way to make life miserable for others—she demeans her daughter’s wedding dress, at the wedding. But she also has an enthusiasm and presence that makes her very interesting and compelling. Wherever she goes, she garners attention, just as she attracts the reader at the same time he/she is repulsed.

God, that “unprincipled bastard” proves to be harsh to the individual as well as the world at large. Lively contrasts the ravages of war to the ravages of Claudia’s body—the two are intertwined. The Moon Tiger of the title “is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.” Everything ends up in the dish under the Moon Tiger. Even within one lifetime, our previous lives become inaccessible to our current selves. “History is disorder…death and muddle and waste.”

1987 PD James from The Guardian

I look back on my chairmanship in 1987 as a very happy experience, particularly as I had as my colleagues four hardworking, enthusiastic and knowledgeable judges: Lady Selina Hastings, Allan Massie, Trevor McDonald and John B Thompson. I did have a fear at the time – and still do – that to ask the panel to read more than 100 novels in a comparatively short time can result in a literary surfeit which makes the final judgment more difficult. Choosing the winner was a long process, and I remember scurrying to the dinner table a little after the meal had started. At the end, however, the vote was unanimous – Penelope Lively won, for Moon Tiger – which is what I had hoped for. The Booker may at times have tended to increase the unhelpful dichotomy between popular storytelling and books which are classified as literary novels, but most of the winners have combined high literary achievement with compelling storytelling.

Jean Baird

Jean Baird

Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

More from Jean Baird: