The Booker's Big Bang

The Booker Prize, which will be awarded on 14 October, is 40 years old, but it wasn't always the 600

Booker is 40. It now ranks as Britain's second oldest national fiction prize. Pride of place in that league goes to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, an annual award in the gift of the Regius Professor of English at Edinburgh University. That department plausibly claims to be the first of its kind anywhere, which gives the prize - the first of its kind in Britain - a double lustre. Who was James Tait Black? Don't ask. I've looked it up myself and always forget - a Scottish publisher, I believe, of whom confusingly many were surnamed Black. He was probably the first something.

The JTB was set up in 1919 and duly picked a dud - The Secret City, Hugh Walpole's novel about the ongoing Russian Revolution. Amends were made the following year with D H Law rence's The Lost Girl. The character of the JTB over the decades after its foundation was established by the long-serving Herbert J C Grierson, the greatest Sir Walter Scott scholar of his day. The JTB, like HJCG, was "solid".

Unlike its English rival, the JTB is not a household name - not even in bookish houses (by Waterstone's reckoning, that means one where 12 books a year are consumed). Every literate citizen whose reading has taken them beyond Key Stage Four of the National Curriculum will know about the Booker ("Man Booker" since 2002, when the financial slack was taken up by a friendly hedge fund). Like the Cup Final and the Grand National, the announcement in October is an annual event. Barring cataclysm, it rates top place on the morning bulletins. Jim Naughtie would not have it otherwise. It's big news.

Booker is also one of the mighty engines of the 21st-century book trade. Where the "quality" or "literary" novel is concerned, it is the mightiest such engine. Booker forges international name-recognition and makes the lucky author (and, yes, luck does come into it) rich. Even those only long and shortlisted bloom under the golden shower.

Why is the Booker such a literary kingmaker and its venerable Scottish rival not? The JTB makes equally sagacious selections. In 2005, the year John Banville's The Sea won the Booker, the JTB went for Ian McEwan's Saturday. You can see the 80-year record of the Scottish prize on its Edinburgh University website, www. englit.ed.ac.uk/jtbwins.htm. The JTB's record stands up well. Better than Booker in its more wayward years. Senior Scottish professors are anything but skittish.

Daringly, JTB will nowadays admit the occasional American contender. In 2006, the year in which Kiran Desai won the Man Booker with The Inheritance of Loss, Cormac McCarthy's The Road took the JTB. Everyone has his own crystal ball, and none is reliable. But I would guess that, a hundred years from now, the verdict of posterity may lean JTB's way. We'll never know.

Much as history may approve its choices, my guess is that the verdict of the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres (to give it its full title) moves few volumes off the shelves. Once Alex Salmond nationalises JTB and makes only authors who wear tartan underwear eligible - who knows? Stand by, Ian Rankin.

Who actually originated the Booker Prize is moot. One claimant (he asserts the claim per suasively in his 2005 autobiography) is Tom Maschler. The wunderkind of British publi-shers in the 1960s and 1970s, Maschler ran Jonathan Cape in its golden years. It would gild the London book world generally, Maschler thought, to adorn it with something like the Goncourt Prize.

The Goncourt is a high-prestige award. None higher. It disdains lucre and everything to do with trade: that "British shopkeeper" ethos which Napoleon scorned from the other side of the Channel. The cash value of the Goncourt is a risible ?10. Abandon commerce, all ye who enter here, that paltry coinage proclaims.

The Goncourt "academy" comprises ten long-standing, regularly convening judges. They are all distinguished figures in the literary world - like the "immortals" of the Académie Française. And, like their fellow academicians, they serve the greater interest of French literature: its gloire. The prize itself is named after one of the more strenuous 19th-century critics of fiction.

"Goncourt Englished" was what Maschler had in mind. It was not to be - or not quite in that high-mindedly Gallic form. The rival claim to having invented the Booker is that of Martyn Goff, until a couple of years ago the prize's administrator.For decades Goff had devoted himself to the thankless, some would say pointless, task of mak ing the obstinate British public read Bri t ish fiction. Good fiction, preferably. Goff would have put Sexy-Susie postcards up in phone boxes if he thought it would get Britons to read novels.

Goff revered good fiction (and himself wrote it), but he was of the view that there is no such thing as a good book that doesn't sell and that doesn't stimulate the sale of similarly good books. Embedded in the rules of the Booker (Goff-inspired) are certain canny reg ulations. One is that any one publish er is limited to two titles a year (former shortlistees get a pass). This year, there was press excitement about the long listed Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold. A first novel, generated out of her bowels of a reading group, it is given to the world from the Custard Factory arts centre and published by the independent Tindal Street Press, both based in Birmingham. Hardly Bloomsbury.

By the rules of the prize, the product from Tindal Street Press has equal standing with those from Cape, Fourth Estate, Viking and Chatto - publishing houses with multinational millions to play with. The two-book regulation has been particularly good for "nursery" imprints, such as Canongate, which can always get a look-in. Nursing the national product is never something that concerns the Aca démie Gon court. Leave such sordid matters to the tradesmen.

The (Man) Booker is named not after any grand literary critic, but the Sons of Mammon, plc. The Booker Group is a vast grocery wholesaler. The Man Group is, as its own PR proclaims, "one of the world's largest futures brokers". The message promoted by the prize's name is that fiction, like armies, marches on its belly.

The mingled aims of Man Booker persist to this day. They are fishbones in the prize's throat. Does it exist to make a qualitative judgement, or to sell books? If the first, why not have judges who - like their Goncourt counterparts - are mandarins of literary taste (two George Steiners, two Frank Kermodes and one A S Byatt, for example)? Or a senior professor of proven critical reliability - as with the JTB? If the motive is to sell, sell, sell, why not Katie Price and Jade Goody? And if the prize is there principally to promote fiction that sells, why do popular (but suspiciously sub-literary) genres such as science fiction, romance and crime so rarely get a look-in? These questions are asked every year - and are never answered satisfactorily.

The Booker wasn't always the mighty engine it is today. When it was launched in 1969 - with the odd choice of P H Newby's Something to Answer For (a feeble compromise among hope lessly split judges, we now know) - the prize was regarded as a joke. There was a collective guffaw year after year thereafter, reaching a high point in that annus horribilis, 1972, when George Steiner got John Berger's G nominated (his two fellow judges, Cyril Connolly and Elizabeth Bowen, were on their deathbeds), only to have the winner spurn the arch-capitalist's 30 pieces of silver (in fact £5,000) and give half of his award to the Black Panthers, an organisation on the verge of ceasing to exist. Pointlessness heaped on pointlessness. Could anything sum up the ridiculous thing more aptly? Goff must have had the hide of a rhinoceros to contin ue; that and a sense of the profound worthwhileness of what he was doing.

The laughing stopped, quite suddenly in 1980, with the contest between William Golding's Rites of Passage and Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers. A num ber of factors - besides Goff's persistence - combined to make the Booker the Booker we know, and not something down there with the Eurovision Song Contest.

One factor was the collapse of the "safe library sale" (SLS). Since the Second World War, local councils had supplied what Whitehall decreed should be a "comprehensive and efficient" provision of reading matter to the nation, via the public library system. Some 75 per cent of borrowing from public libraries was fiction - most of it new, hardback novels.

What SLS meant for the consumer was "books on the rates". Fiction, like steel, coal, health and the railways, was nationalised. A small, but in tegral, part of the welfare state, the safe library sale set a peculiarly clement climate for the producers and creators of fiction. Because break-even was guaranteed, chances could be taken. New talent could be tried out.

This benign arrangement was shattered by the oil shock and double-digit inflation in the early 1970s, which pushed the market price of books well beyond what the acquisition budget could afford. The lavish taxpayer subsidy, which had been so good for the English novel, in effect ended. There remained a public library sale for novels - but it could no longer be considered safe. A vacuum was created.

There was another innovation in the mid-1970s that added power to this shift: the bestseller list, an American thing that the British book trade had resisted for almost a century, on the grounds that books should not compete with each other. The newly arrived British bestseller list was regime-changing. Selling novels, as opposed to originating, or nurturing, them, had taken priority. The literary weather was suddenly sharper, even for books.

A third factor was the decline of the opinion- forming review. Reviewers had enjoyed huge trust in the 1940s and 1950s. There was more cultural obedience. The nation was used to taking orders. It had won us the war, for God's sake. With the death of deference, reviewing became the withered muscle of literature that it now is. There are, in 2008, no voices as authoritative as Harold Hobson, Kenneth Tynan, Cyril Connolly or - in these pages - V S Pritchett. It's a fact of modern literary life.

The most significant element in the rise of Booker above its unhappy first years was Mar garet Thatcher. With her nakedly ideological reshapings, "competition" (that sacred word in the shopkeeper's daughter's lexicon) seeped into the fabric of British life, like ink through blotting paper.

In an alternative universe, one can imagine a Margaret Hilda Roberts reading literature at Somerville College and going on to be, by 1979, a formidable reviewer and power broker in literary London. Her motto, engraved in brass over her desk, would be: "There is no such thing as 'Literature' - there are only books that sell and books that don't sell."

The Booker, as it enters its fifth decade, represents, along with the bestseller list, the Thatcherisation of the British Novel - a gladiator ial world in which, as in Highlander, "there can be only one". A "best novel of the year", standing, like Russell Crowe, over the slaughtered carcasses of those other 110 or so submitted titles. It's a critical nonsense. And an insult to national literary talent.

The Guardian recently ran a feature with reports from chairs and members of all the 40 panels that have adjudicated the Booker. There was an uneasy refrain from those who have served, that competition is not, somehow, "right" where novels are concerned, even though it works so wonderfully for marrows at the village fete. There are no level playing fields in literature (Shakespeare better than Dickens? Austen than George Eliot? Be serious).

Middle age is a useful summing-up point. Are these prizes, and specifically the supercasino regime (one winner, many losers), good for that most civilised product of our civilisation - its literature? A couple of years ago in the Observer, Jason Cowley, now the editor of the New Statesman, queried the "economy of prestige" (that is to say, free-marketisation) that the Booker and the profusion of wannabe-Bookers had introduced into the British book world.

On the whole, Cowley concluded, the risks to creativity were real but the "jamboree" or "fun" element made it worthwhile. Just. It would be interesting to know if he still thinks so. More so as the larger climate seems to be changing. In a thoughtful piece in the Independent recently, Boyd Tonkin diagnosed a slump in the sales even of Booker finalists. Were the brut alities of the big-prize system stifling what Goff, decades earlier, had hoped to nurture with his innovation: the quality novel?

My own feeling is that, like much else in British life, the Man Booker is imperfect but nonetheless works as well as anything could with a product as slippery, and resistant to even-handed competition, as high-grade fiction. At least, for now it works.

So, Edinburgh can have its worthy James Tait Black, Paris its snooty Goncourt, but London, carp as we surely shall this October, will do well to keep - and honour - its Man Booker. May the best novel win (whatever that means).