The judges for this year's Man Booker Prize were never likely to be given a free pass, primarily because, on paper, they don't look up to the job. Take the chair, Dame Stella Rimington. An able and intelligent woman - but you wouldn't ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington's status as a novelist doesn't much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight's Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late It Was, How Late?
It was one of this year's shortlisted novelists, Julian Barnes, writing almost 25 years ago, who provided the most damning account of the prize's decline. After describing it as "increasingly an affair of the book trade", he reflected that, "whereas in 1972 the three judges were Cyril Connolly, George Steiner and Elizabeth Bowen", in 1987 Trevor McDonald, "by virtue of having written a biography of Viv Richards", was "at least more 'literary' than one of the other judges". Those were the days. Even the most legitimate of the judges for this year's prize, Susan Hill, a judge back in 1975 (together with Angus Wilson, Roy Fuller and Peter Ackroyd), is somewhat questionable. She would grind her axes all day long if it weren't for that chip on her shoulder.
At the press conference held on 6 September to announce the 2011 shortlist, the judges didn't do much to settle doubts. The political columnist Matthew d'Ancona made a meal of praising Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, drawing parallels between events in the novel and the Damilola Taylor case as well as the London riots - before insisting that topical parallels are irrelevant. Both d'Ancona and Hill, speaking in praise of Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, used the term "patois" - as if to reclaim the word (from David Starkey) on behalf of literature, or anyway the Man Booker Prize.
It was equally perplexing to hear the time-honoured "we judge the book, not the reputation" line being used about the exclusion from the shortlist of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child, given the praise being lavished on this particular book: "a masterclass in the art of the novel", "an extraordinary achievement", "probably the best novel this year so far", "If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn't win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world".
But there were also signs of proper critical intelligence. Most of those came from Gaby Wood, the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, who gave Barnes's The Sense of an Ending the kind of eloquent praise missing from the reviews, which merely fawned. I am by no means alone in thinking ill of Barnes's book, but those who have whispered their disparagement in my ear tend to vanish like good Germans, as Wilfrid Sheed once put it, when asked for public corroboration.
Anyway, unless Carol Birch (Jamrach's Menagerie) ruins his night, the novelist who advised his fellow practitioners to think of the prize as posh bingo seems about to have his numbers called, proving in the process that it's not all about "pulling out the big one": "Sometimes the judges prefer you to pull out the small one." (Last year, I looked like the neighbourhood weirdo when I expressed doubts about The Finkler Question - but it is enlightening, a year on, to see the book's one-star reviews on Amazon nudging the 100 mark while the five-star reviews dawdle in the low twenties.)
The literary director of the prize, Ion Trewin, emphasised the number of independent publishers represented - a point that stood up better for the longlist, which contained books from such off-trail outfits as Sandstone Press, based in the Highlands, and Seren in Bridgend, but works less well when he needs to lean on Granta (publisher of Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers). What is most notable about this year's shortlist is how nearly plausible it looks, given the preposterous longlist. The old prizes-for-everyone remark offered by judges - "We could easily have chosen another 13 books" - rings true indeed. Could have, and should have: David Bezmozgis, Philip Hensher, Hisham Matar, Ali Smith, Ross Raisin, Hari Kunzru, Belinda McKeon, David Miller, Tessa Hadley, Edward St Aubyn, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Mars-Jones, Dermot Healy.
Although the judges put on a fairly good show, in some cases it was all too obvious that they were putting on a show. The former Labour MP Chris Mullin described himself as “a simple country boy" - a simple country boy, he implied, who couldn't be expected to understand complicated city things like Literature. Mullin also said something about how friends, knowing the Booker's form, had urged him to pick a "readable" book - as if Howard Jacobson were a 21st-century descendant of Robert Musil or James Joyce.
I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of "readable" to mean (essentially) "can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly". And people who have been selected for their skill as readers should not be making a point of using "read" as a noun. "An excellent read." This is what people say when they think they are talking about books that don't demand too much of readers but are really talking about books of which readers don't demand too much. Books such as A D Miller's Snowdrops, a well-written thriller which has made this year's shortlist.
These days, prizes generally speak louder than words, especially if those words take the form of literary criticism. But the Man Booker Prize still has principles - a vision, even - and it articulates these in the calibre of its judges, and of the novels they reward. Failures of the former all too obviously threaten the latter. And if things continue as they are, it isn't hard to imagine a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them.
The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 18 October. For more information about the prize, visit: themanbookerprize.com
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer