I still feel inordinately proud of that year of reading and I hope anyone who read along does too, especially looking back on the moments when it seemed impossible, and then those other moments when the scales dropped from the eyes and the bigger picture became apparent. Everyone who was anyone has a comment to make about James Joyce and I'm also finding Joycean techniques and allusions in plenty of other books I'm reading as a result. It's as if a door that felt firmly closed has been opened to reveal a previously invisible literary landscape and I'm very excited about Team Tolstoy which starts here tomorrow.
Love of the World, a collection of John McGahern's essays, has become a right-hand book, a port
in a storm when I want soothing, intelligent words about books, reading, life et al, so I have read with great interest his essay entitled Why the Booker Is Such a Hard Bet and had many of my own dilemmas over it this year answered... or at least concerns assuaged. I have felt convinced for the last three years that the prize may be sacrificing the inclusion of some exceptional writing on the altar of publicity and popularity.
But what do I know and how hard must this be?
The judges dilemma when faced with having to pick a few books out of more than a hundred and as John McGahern explains
'Every serious reader has at least one book they resisted fiercely at
first, a resistance that may have lasted for years to a work that has
become an important part of their life. A decision has to be made on all
these books over a few. brief moments.'
I have resisted several of this year's Booker long-listers 'fiercely' knowing full well I may come to an understanding of them eventually, had I been a judge this year (heaven forfend) I may well have lay down and refused to move before agreeing to the inclusion of a couple, but I suspect a great deal of give-and take bargaining goes on...
...let this diamond of mine in and I'll let you have that turkey, because this is all about personal reading taste in the end surely?
Writing of his experience as a judge John McGahern sheds light on the process, and those early feelings of dismay and inadequacy, initially subsumed by the first and easier stages of the judging, which quickly resurfaced as the task became increasingly difficult.
'Books without any support were eliminated, while those with the
support of one judge were retained. From here on in the real difficulty
began. No two judges had the same taste and at this stage all the
rejected books had been admired and liked by someone...change a committee and you'll change most of the books on the shortlist and. almost certainly, the eventual winner.'
Take pity on the plight of the shortlisted author too, that posh dinner doesn't sound much like the picnic we think, John McGahern proceeds to describe his own experience as a shortlisted author for Amongst Women
'...all of it was interesting, some of it pleasurable, but, overall far from enjoyable. It's as if one's life was in abeyance as the days ground down to Booker night.'
Hilary Mantel said as much last year, likening it to that interminable wait for exam results.
John McGahern concedes graciously,
'...I learned that it has nothing to do with writing or reading or reflection : everything about it has to do with publishing. The publishers had believed in the book from the beginning, had worked well and hard to get it noticed and now it was getting widespread attention...it was their night and I was glad to have played my part.'
and he draws this salutary conclusion
'Without the book business it would be difficult or impossible for true books to find their true readers and without that solitary (and potentially subversive) figure alone with a book the whole razzmattaz of prize, banquets, television, spectaculars, bestseller lists, even literature courses, editors and authors, are all worthless. Unless a book finds lovers among these solitary readers, it will not live ... or live for long.'
Hooray for us readers I say.