By Jean Baird | April 19, 2013

The BC Book Prizes

The BC Book Prizes began in 1985 with the formation of the West Coast Book Prizes Society. The Founding Board: Ruth Clarke Harlow, Tony Gregson (chairman), Paddy Laidley, Bryan Newson, Alice Niwinski, Brian Scrivener, Alan Twigg, Kate Walker, Alan Woodland, Carolyn Zonailo. There were four prize categories with a $1,000 prize to the winner. In 1986, the prizes increased to six categories. Each award is named after a prominent BC writer. For example, the poetry prize is called the Dorothy Livesay prize. I hope these prizes never fall to corporate sponsorship naming—that would be a real shame.

Now that the awards are 25 years old, I asked Alan Twigg if he thought the prizes have done a good job of identifying the best books. He replied:

Any three different judges will pick a different winner nearly every time in every category–with rare exceptions (The BC Encyclopedia, for instance). So it’s the luck of the draw. The luck of the composition of the jury. Prizes are NOT reliable barometers for superiority. Time has a way of sifting things.

“I do not judge writing contests and prizes. But I have organized and managed them because they are industrial necessities. The annual glitter over the Giller disturbs me. Clearly the highest credibility can be sold to the highest bidder. Everyone back east seems to go along with it because there is a media fuss. Perhaps it makes the people who attend feel they are the top of the food chain. Meanwhile the venerable Governor General’s Awards are deemed circumspect, passé, not sexy enough. History should count for something. Dance with the one who brung ya.

We needed the BC Book Prizes because our provincial industry and writers were so under the radar. It was about making the media take notice. And boosting our own self-awareness and self-confidence. I never had any illusion that ‘justice’ was being served. There are literally dozens and dozens of superb books that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Before the BC Book Prizes we had the Eaton’s Book Award. They mostly had the same three judges, year after year. They were excellent. Bizarrely, that was a superior system. You get unbiased and knowledgeable people who have a vested interest in building and maintaining the integrity of the award, so they make choices that are not self-serving. Whereas if you just get one kick at the can as a judge, you are more likely to abuse the public platform and reward someone you know, someone you’ve taught, someone you’ve slept with.”

Wow, that’s refreshing. Particularly the part about time having a way of sifting things. And over the years things have sifted with the BC Prizes. Originally the jury system was the usual correspondence and discussion. Then in 1987, the following, reported in BC BookWorld:

When it comes to book prizes, emotional tampering is common. A judge for the Booker Prize once threatened to jump out of a window if Paul Scott’s novel didn’t win Britain’s top fiction award. It won.

When Federico Andahazi won Argentina’s top literary prize, the Fortabat, the wealthy, 72-year-old ‘cement heiress’ who sponsors the award, Amalia Locrosse de Fortabat, became incensed to learn the winning novel concerned the ‘discovery’ of the clitoris. She denounced Mr. Andahazi as ‘communist porn artist.’ The Argentinian prize ceremony was cancelled. The jury stood its ground. The winner’s cheque for $16,000 was reportedly slipped under Mr. Andahazi’s door. His sales skyrocketed.

When she was judging the Roderick Haig-Brown Prize for 1987, Ann Haig-Brown, the author’s widow, threatened the other two judges and the organizers by saying she would come to Vancouver and personally denounce the procedures if a certain journalist, whose book was less than flattering to her husband but was favoured to win by the other two judges, was given the Haig-Brown Prize. Intimidated by this fierce opposition, the two other judges reneged on their decision and the prize that year ended up going to an American who was technically ineligible because she wasn’t a B.C. resident.

It’s an imperfect world.

Judges for the B.C. Book Prizes need no longer fear tantrums or bullying. A simple mathematical system, in place since 1992, now accords points to each judge’s top five picks. No fisticuffs or filibusters, just fairness.”

As noted by his participation as a director of the Society, Alan Twigg was involved at the beginning, but when he started BC Bookworld in 1987 he was too busy to assist with the prizes. In the early days administration was haphazard. Money was scarce and sponsorship had evaporated. Alan got back involved and took over administrative duties after an embarrassing episode in 1992 where they announced the wrong name as the winner of the poetry prize. John Pass was announced when Barry McKinnon was the actual winner. Alan worked to create better procedures, to get permanent sponsors, and to devise a judging system that he believed to be fairer. Alan did this work as an unpaid volunteer. By 2000 Beverly Cramp was the executive director and was paid a modest fee to administer the prizes, still with unpaid assistance from Alan and the BC Bookworld staff. Short lists changed from 3 books to 5 books in each category.

Rebus Creative took over administration of the prizes about 2002. Rebus is a for-profit marketing company that specializes in arts and culture events. As well as the prizes, Rebus administers the Vancouver Word on the Street. Under the administration of Rebus the BC Book Prizes have sifted again, with some policy changes and a touring programme. Much of my information for this section comes from Bryan Pike, president of Rebus.

Staff of Rebus and the West Coast Book Prize Society come up with a list of potential jurors who are then approached by Rebus staff. Potential jurors continue the eclectic mix of qualifications established by the prize since its inception—writers, publishers (but not in a category where the publisher has a contending book), librarians, teachers, academics and literary arts administrators. For the Lt-Gov award for lifetime achievement in the literary arts the winner from the previous year is asked to be a juror. For all the jurors they are looking for people who have community respect in their field. Bryan says Rebus does not have a black list of jurors. Of course, jurors are expected not to have a conflict with any of the books they will be considering, and given the small literary pool, sometimes that presents a challenge. Each juror is paid $200.

Publishers must have the books to Rebus by December 1. Publishers pay $30 entry fee for every book submitted and there is no ceiling on how many books can be entered. Self-published books are accepted. Rebus works to get the packages to jurors to have for the holiday season and they have until March to submit their lists. Each juror is asked to rank five books, putting the first place choice at the top. Lists are then sent to an accountant for tabulations.

At one time jurors were told not to speak to each other. Currently Rebus asks a juror if he wants to talk to other jurors. Those jurors who answer “yes” are connected. So sometimes two jurors talk and one does not. That lack of consistency bothers many jurors.

When Rex Weyler was a juror he recognized immediately that he couldn’t possibly read 60+ books in the time allotted. He read some of each book, sorting the books into Yes, Maybe and No piles. He had about eight books in his Yes pile. Books went into the No pile based on less than excellent writing. After consulting with other jurors, Rex reviewed several books in his Maybe pile because the other jurors were championing them. Rex believes, as do many others, that when time is pressed (and to some degree it always is with prizes) discussion amongst jurors is even more important.

Interviews with jurors revealed a number of concerns:

  • $200 payment is extremely low. Some full-time writers cannot justify giving up that amount of writing time for such low compensation. That further reduces an already small potential jury pool. (By contrast the Journey prize pays $1000 for around 75 short stories.) Without fair compensation, you get what your pay for.
  • If you are only offering $200 in payment, the organizing body shouldn’t suggest that you don’t need to accept the fee. That’s “cheesy.” Rebus says this practice has been discontinued.
  • Those people who do agree to the task think of it as a civic duty and they believe that means there needs to be accountability. Working in isolation doesn’t encourage transparency.
  • The task is impossible in such a short space of time. As a result, many/most books are skimmed.
  • No discussion means no consensus and means often a book that no juror would have championed as the best book will actually win.
  • At minimum, a potential juror should have an interest in and an ability to discuss books. Some peopled interviewed were deeply concerned by some jury members—nice people, “but what qualifies them to be on a literary jury?”
  • When jurors don’t talk, the level of suspicion about fellow jurors is very high—that they don’t read all the books, that they cook private deals, that they put friends on their short-lists, that they deliberately leave off deserving books because they don’t like the writer. Ranking in secrecy provides protection for ill-equipped jurors and those with agendas.
  • If jurors do talk but are independently ranking books, it increases the possibility of manipulation of the system, because you know what the other guy is going to do.
  • Every juror I spoke with was concerned about lack of accountability. Many accept the process, but they aren’t happy with it.
  • Good communication with jurors is essential and needs to be handled by an experienced, senior jury officer. Too often Rebus uses interns for administration duties, and they often make mistakes.
  • Juries are thrown together at the last minute. Potential jurors are called just before the already short process is about to begin.
  • Too often the winners are not really deserving which promotes the idea that BC books are second rate. And when deserving BC authored books are honoured elsewhere, but not at home, it undermines the credibility of the awards.

Many writers think of jury duty as an opportunity to learn. They believe when books are discussed that they have gained professionally and artistically. For young writers especially, when there is no discussion about the books this is a concern.

If I understand correctly the “no communication” policy was loosened under Rebus administration because of complaints and concerns from jurors. But from jurors’ feedback during lengthy interviews that I conducted from 2008 to 2011, it appears that you can’t blend the two systems. Either use blind judging and ranking (where jurors don’t know the other members of the jury and don’t communicate) or use discussion and group selection of short-list and winner. It’s an imperfect world and jurors are human which means sometimes the process can be messy but mixing the two systems just makes it messier.

Over the years when the “no communication” ranking system was in place, some jurors were discouraged because they read all the books, did all the work and when the shortlists were announced not one book from their ranking had made it on. In response to those complaints a new policy was developed—jurors were guaranteed that the book at the top of their list would automatically go on the short list. Again this policy, put in place in good faith, just creates another way to manipulate the system. I’ve heard a number of stories of how that was done with good intentions and good results. And many more of how it was done to eliminate the possibility of a particular book/writer from winning, or to get a friend on the short list.

Jurors keep the books. For writers this perk is not an incentive—their lives and shelves are already full of books. For jurors that are not writers, they like to receive all the freebies. In both instances 85% of the books end up at used booksellers.

There is not a policy for jurors to be BC people but that is the habit because it is more “practical.” Does that mean cheaper? Or so jurors can attend the award ceremony? Whatever the reason, the habit might be reviewed. Most provincial prizes have outside jurors to extend the jury pool and to reduce favouritism and personal agendas.

Many jurors and others in the publishing industry are deeply concerned about the BC prizes. Almost everyone I interviewed thanked me for conducting this research, hoping it might result in changes. Some of the identified problems could be easily improved. If the juries were put together and in place for September, they could receive a first shipment of books in October. October, November and early December could be spent reading books published from January 1 to September 1. A second shipment could be sent in December. This system would greatly ease the time problems.

The quality of the jury members is a huge concern, particularly for writers and publishers. Most other prizes work with the writing and publishing community to develop lists of potential jurors. Rebus has an in-house list and works with a board. That system of jury selection in conjunction with the ranking system has consistently overlooked good books and good authors—see further research on this point below. The jury selection process might be reviewed, payment to jurors increased to improve the quality of jurors and more jurors from outside the province to increase the potential jury pool. An advisory group of writers to suggest potential jurors could be a good resource. There are some jurors who have been on juries at a high frequency, never a good sign.

Not long after Rebus took over administration duties Bryan Pike was having a conversation with a librarian in an area outside of the lower mainland. The librarian knew nothing about the prizes, had never heard of them. Bryan realized he had a big visibility problem. One result of a deliberate move to make the prizes more visible throughout the province and to generate new partnerships is the BC Book Prizes tour. Each year short-listed writers spend a frantic week to 10-days touring. In 2010 writers toured 26 communities, mostly schools and libraries.

In each community Rebus tries to find a local donor who will sponsor a book adoption program. This means a local school will receive $500 of short-listed books. So not only are writers touring, and meeting readers, books are being sold.

Community presenters do not have to pay—Rebus arranges sponsorships to cover transportation, and accommodation. The 2011 tour of the Okanagan paid writers $800 plus $65 per diem for meals. That sounds reasonable. Well, until you find out the 5-day schedule included 11 readings. That makes the per reading payment about half of what the Canada Council recommends.

Over the years I have organized many programs and projects that connect students and schools with writers. I absolutely agree with Bryan that in the right environment—right writer in the right school—such a visit can be life transforming for students. Like Bryan, I’ve watched it happen.

Most of the writers I interviewed who had done the tour agree that it was good to see the province with other writers, to get to places they otherwise would not go and to feel a part of the broader community. The tour expanded their personal networks in many ways. Bryan is a personable guy and fun to hang out—essential qualities on a road trip.

The tour is not without some glitches. It’s rushed. Some writers thought there were too many schools and not enough public venues, and that many of those public venues aren’t very good. Schools are a captive audience—sometimes that works, sometimes it’s a struggle for the writers to develop a connection (students have no familiarity with the writers’ works beforehand). Attendance at the public venues isn’t really high, and sometimes is very thin. Some writers got the sense that partnerships are set, and that the program is not very open to innovation or flexibility.

It would be great to see other prize administrators developing such programs, particularly involving schools.

*     *     *

Joan Givner:

The most discouraging part of jury work for me occurs when I am convinced that the final choice is a misjudgement. By being on the jury, I am party to that misjudgement.

One unsatisfactory outcome is when the final choice in a competition is a book that was not the first choice on any juror’s shortlist. This often happens, especially when the jurors are asked to rate their preferences numerically.”

*    *    *

Literary careers of stature are acknowledged by the Order of Canada. The process is complex. A name is put forward, with the support of two references from the industry. Then the staff at Rideau Hall send out letters to members of the Order in that area for their support of this nominee. Those letters are then reviewed by the board that oversees the order and final recommendations are made to the Governor General. Essentially it is assessment by peers, but in a much broader community than is ever represented by a 3 or 5 person jury.

The following BC writers have received the Order of Canada:

Robin Blaser

David Bouchard

George Bowering

Barry Broadfoot

Audrey Brown

Fred Cogswell

Christie Harris

Jack Hodgins

Bill Kinsella

Joy Kogawa

Dorothy Livesay

Daphne Marlatt

Roy Miki

Eric Nicol

PK Page

Al Purdy

Sinclair Ross

Jane Rule

Carol Shields

Audrey Thomas

Phyllis Webb

Ethel Wilson

Seven of those writers also have the Order of British Columbia, Bowering, Kinsella, Livesay, Miki, Page, Rule, and Joy Kogawa. The citations for the OBC and OC suggest that both Miki and Kogawa have received the honours for their work with the redress movement rather than literary careers. That makes 22 BC writers who have been honoured by the country’s and the province’s highest awards.

Only five of those 22 have won a BC Book Prize. Audrey Thomas has won 3. One each to Jack Hodgins, Marlatt, Page, and Shields. In 2003 and 2010 PK Page was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Prize for poetry. Neither book was short-listed for the BC poetry prize. The one BC Book Award that PK did receive was not for a poetry collection but for her memoir about Brazil.

It does seem that the BC Prizes has a track record of missing most of the big books and celebrating what one annoyed publisher described to me as “mediocrity.” Not always, but way too often.

  *    *    *

Jury: Professor Gillian Beer, esteemed academic and literary critic. Rachel Billington, novelist, sister of Antonia Fraser (married to Harold Pinter) and daughter of Lord Longford. Jason Cowley, journalist, magazine editor and writer. Jan Dalley, is the literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. Before that she worked in general publishing and as a reviewer and translator. Professor Dan Jacobson of University College London, also writer, novelist and winner of the John Llewellyn and Somerset Maugham awards.

Bernard MacLaverty—Grace Notes VPL

A compact novel, written in two movements, exploring themes including the changing political situation in Ireland, family relationships, religious persecution and shifting social morals. At the heart of the novel is the creative process. The main character, Catherine, is a composer, who returns home to Ireland for the funeral of her father after years of self-imposed exile. The trip sparks memories. In the second half we are told the story of her life before the funeral. How she developed as a musician and composer. Her ill-fated relationship with Dave that produced her unplanned daughter. Out of the pain and confusion of postpartum depression she writes great music.

I suppose it’s brave of MacLaverty, as a man, to write about the birthing process and being at the receiving end of an abusive drunken partner. Having been in both situations, I didn’t find MacLaverty’s descriptions persuasive. The book jacket says the novel is about the “interplay between her life and art” and is a “journey from superstition to sensibility.”

I’d like to convince a composer to read this novel. I might be way off base, but I think the descriptions of the creative process, getting it out of your head, are highly sentimental and romanticized. Category: Great art from great pain.

Jim Crace—Quarantine VPL

From the dust jacket: “Judea, about two thousand years ago. There were five of them—not in a group, but strung out along the road where earlier that morning the caravan of uncles had passed by. Three men, a woman and, too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth. And this fifth one was bare-footed, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples had diluted it.”

The epigraph: “An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast—that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink—could not expect to live for more than thirty days, not to be conscious for more than twenty-five. For him, the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable—except with divine help, of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it.” Ellis Winward and Professor Michael Soule, The Limits of Mortality.

Mira’s husband, Musa, has a fatal fever. His mouth is black. He is hallucinating and unable to move on—he is a member of a trading caravan. Musa is a vile man, and the rest of the caravan is content to leave him behind with a few things—goods, a mule, some water—and his pregnant wife. In preparation for his death, Mira digs a grave. While she is gone, the fifth figure arrives, seeks water from the mute Musa. On departing, he sprinkles some water on Musa’s head and says, “Be well.”

The fifth figure is Jesus. In the morning Musa is well.

Crace is a declared “atheist, impatient with the simple-mindedness of orthodox religion, its lack of imagination, its bafflegab.” The novel examines the transitions, the cruelty of the ancient world, healing, the prospect of eternal life and superstitions. It’s all very unorthodox. Crace intended “to inflict some bruises on religious dogma,” and as a result, “Quarantine with Science as its sword would kill Christ after only thirty days in the wilderness. There’d be no Ministry or Crucifixion. The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium”

Crace’s Jesus doesn’t have the stamina or showmanship for the task. It is Musa, the salesman, who takes the story of Jesus to the world. Christianity as a sales job.

Crace is a powerful writer. I’ll look up his other books when I finish this project. Also, I am starting to feel like that guy in Supersize Me, being fed on a steady diet of realistic, historical, sweeping Big novels. Crace was a sunbeam.

Mick Jackson—The Underground Man VPL

This novel is loosely based on the actual William John Cavenish Bentinck-Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland, and a famous eccentric who “had the wealth to indulge his manias to the fullest.” One mania is building a series of tunnels under his estate, wide and high enough for two carriages to pass. Another is his health, mental and physical. Most of the novel is fictional journal entries of the Duke. The remaining smaller chapters are fictional first-hand interviews of staff, doctors and other characters in the Duke’s life. Mostly the reader gets the Duke’s take on what is going on. But in short time it becomes clear that the Duke doesn’t have a very firm grasp of the world, and what he does have is slipping away. The reader must piece together what is actually going on by the Duke’s actions rather than his ramblings.

It’s a tightly written and interesting read. Jackson, who is mostly known as a filmmaker, makes the most of the journal form. Partly the novel is a mystery, of some suppressed event from the Duke’s youth, not revealed until the end. But the plot is incidental to the creation of the character of the Duke.

Madeleine St John—The Essence of the Thing VPL

Category: Chick Lit. Nicola goes out for cigarettes. When she returns, Jonathan, her partner of six years calls her into the living room before she can even take off her coat. He informs her that it’s over, and that she needs to move out. She’s surprised. Crushed. Refuses to believe it is true. Jonathan sleeps in the spare room and the next morning leaves to visit his parents. Nicola turns to her friends for support and solace.

Yes, folks, it’s that bad and that mundane. The dialogue is bad:

Jonathan isn’t a rat really,’ she said, almost wildly. ‘He isn’t—it’s just—something’s gone wrong somewhere. I mean, it’s probably my fault. I just haven’t had a chance to talk to him properly. I don’t know what’s in his mind. It must be my fault: I must have done something wrong.’

The writing is bad:

their poky little cottage where Jonathan kept banging his head and their little vixen of a daughter woke them up at five in the morning: but still. The scenery was divine.

The editing is bad:

It had been one of the last of those dilapidated, rent-controlled Notting Hill flats, in a Victorian building whose 120-year lease was due when Nicola first moved in to expire a few years later.

No, it isn’t Nicola who will expire—it’s the lease.

Someone might try to persuade you that the novel is a scathing parody of Notting Hill life late in the C20th. They’d be pulling your leg. The novel lacks any such depth. So far, this is The Worst of the Bookers. And, yes, if you are asking, I did read the whole thing. I couldn’t believe such a trite book would make the short list. Surely, I thought, something more must be coming. Nope.

Tim Parks—Europa VPL

Michael Turner recommended My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard. It’s a collection of short essays, and transcriptions of some speeches, from Bernhard’s extensive experiences as a prize winner. Bernhard writes about the ceremonies and indignities to be endured, the self-disgust at accepting prizes from people and organizations he despises, and the money to be claimed that always makes him attend. I started reading the essays before I finished The Essence of the Thing, and the Bernhard was a wonderful relief from the bland prose of that simplistic novel. But when I started Europa I was very aware of how alike the two books seem, particularly in style.

Bernhard and Parks are both creating what have been described as logic pretzels. Both are potent stylists—obsessiveness and alienation are the dominant themes—and have high expectations of the reader.

From Bernhard’s speech at the Award Ceremony for the Literatrure Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen: “We are standing on the most frightening territory in all of history. We are in fear, in fear of this enormous material that is the new humanity, and of a new knowledge of our nature and the renewal of our nature; together we have been only a single mass of pain in the last half century; this pain today is us; this pain is now our spiritual condition.” From another speech, “Everything is explained to us and we understand nothing, The words to which we cling because our impotence makes us insane and our insanity makes us despair, these words merely infect and ignore, blur and aggravate, shame and falsify and cloud and darken everything.”

In Europa, Jeremy Marlow is on a bus from Milan to Strasburg, taking “stock of the wreckage strewn behind him—a failed marriage, a daughter going astray, and an affair that has left him both numb and licking every wound, self-inflicted or otherwise.” The affair has left him in such a shambles he cannot even speak, even think the woman’s name:

Despite working in the same institution, we have both gone out of our way to avoid each other since the last tremendous encounter of perhaps nine months ago when first we made love and then shouted at each other until I held a knife first at her breast and then at my wrist and then wept and hit her and finally went off to smoke cigarettes all night on the sofa and drink heavily while she slept in my bed, the first time I had heard this French voice speaking Italian with wonderfully over-pronounced ‘r’s and under-pronounced ‘l’s and its curious inversion of Italian intonations, this voice that in its time has whispered to me almost every loving word and erotic provocation one person can whisper to another and then again has shouted almost every extreme of contempt and derision.

The concerns of the novel include mass culture, the current state of Europe, love, death, adultery, philosophy, literature, to name just a few. But the force and power of the novel come from the voice of Jeremy, an immensely observant, intelligent and mostly dislikeable man, in full Joycean rant. The novel is an homage to Bernhard and an astonishing accomplishment.

We lay on the narrow bed, still clasping, still hot and damp, and we discussed, after perhaps hours of mutual adoration and oral sex and never without a bottle of Martini, for she was addicted to ice-cold white Martini, Plato’s notion of a realm of ideal forms, and we would try to relate that to the way the Revolution had, as it were, discarded men to champion an idea of man, an ideal man, since surely, or at least this was my feeling, it was this shift that lay behind the notion of egalite and of a single civil code for all the world. Man should be an incarnation of an idea rather than himself. Man should be a European. Or we would discover that Plutarch’s picture of Sparta was not unlike stories of Stalinist Russia, not unlike, in other ways, The Reign of Terror, or Nazi Germany—a European speciality, it seemed—and apropos of police states we came across that other line of Benjamin Constant where he says, There is no limit to the tyranny that strives to extort the symptoms of consensus.

It’s unfair with either Parks or Bernhard to take sections out of the context. Each sentence, each word is so linked to what has come before, and what follows.

Arundhati Roy—The God of Small Things VPL WINNER

One of the Booker jurors called this book “execrable.”

Category: Manichean view of the world.

There are all sorts of things about the style that I found irritating. But I will only mention two—excessive use of similes, and a persistent lecturing style, as if by a writer of history not fiction. Oh, and Capital letters, used the way teenagers write of Love, or Unhappiness. The prose is flowery, to a fevered pitch.

Charles Demers reports, “I threw the God of Small Things across the room on my second try at reading it, the third time on a single page that she referred to “the sky-blue sky”… only book I’ve ever hurled.” Yet another reason to like Charlie.

The novel is about twins, Two–Egg Twins and the horrible decline of their family. Everything can Change in One Day.

Apparently Roy received $1M advance for this first novel. Unbelievable. And even stranger that it was on this short-list and won. It’s hard to imagine a short-list of such vastly different books, and writing styles. There does seem to be some preference from juries for overwrought, sentimental, flowery/poetic tragic love stories.

Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater. Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it. Splay-footed, cautious.

Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon lawn that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.

If you Adored Fall on Your Knees, give this one a try.

From The Guardian: 1997 Jason Cowley

Before the longlist was made public, if you wanted to know which books were in contention you would usually be able to find out by having a discreet lunch with Martyn Goff, the charming and mischievous prize administrator who used to operate his own idiosyncratic system of leaks, withholding and revealing in equal measure. I remember turning up to the meeting at which our shortlist would be decided to be received with suspicion by our chairman, Gillian Beer. She wanted to know how our longlist was being discussed in the papers, and I was pretty sure by the way she looked at me that she thought I was responsible. Certainly I’d been having fun writing polemical pieces about the state of the British novel.

I believed then as I do now that the Booker is essentially a jamboree, little more than a kind of sport, with its own roster of winners and losers. It shouldn’t be dignified or taken too seriously. But I wasn’t the leaker. As we sat down for the lunch that preceded our discussions, and with Gillian Beer still grumbling about the longlist leaking out, I heard Goff say: “It’s quite extraordinary. I don’t know how it happened.” He then, winningly, glanced at me and winked.

I often think that I’ve never quite recovered from my experience of being a judge. I began the year as an enthusiastic and engaged reader and reviewer of contemporary fiction, and ended it much more interested in non-fiction and narrative journalism. And of all the novels I read that year there are perhaps only two that I could ever imagine rereading: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (our unfairly maligned winner) and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (which just missed out on being shortlisted and divided the judges more than any other entry).



More from Jean Baird:

  • 2011

    Jean Baird reviews her favourite Booker novels and reports on the 2011 prize. Read more… 

  • 2010

    Jean Baird offers some advice about writing a prize-winning book and reports on the 2010 Booker Prize. Read more… 

  • 2008

    Jean Baird offers some advice to literary prize administrators and reports on the 2008 Booker Prize. Read more…