The Booker judges have stood up for seriousness

Serious literary debate is what makes the prize worth having.

The Man Booker Prize judges for 2012
The Man Booker Prize judges for 2012. From left to right: Bharat Tandon, Peter Stothard (chair), Dan Stevens, (sitting) Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman. Photograph: The Man Booker Prizes on Flickr

Here we go again. For about a quarter of every year – from the announcement of the long list to the announcement of the winner in October – the Man Booker Prize provokes speculation and talk, though not much more than that. There are a few agenda-fixing headlines (“Amis snubbed again”, “Big year for small publishers”) and then everyone waits to see who the winner is.

Despite this apparently unbreakable pattern, the prize retains a great deal of dignity. It draws people’s attention to the state of the Commonwealth novel (a category it is more or less alone in recognising) and helps a number of books, many of which received little, if any, coverage, on their way to a readership and a reputation. Its potential positive influence makes it worth caring about. And when, last year, there was a bit of a scrap over how the prize was discussed by its judges (in particular Chris Mullin), the stakes were bigger than is customary in metropolitan sniping (though I would say that).

There is some evidence to suggest that the fuss was worth making. The organisers have done a canny job with the jury this time around, managing to appeal, as it were, to the circle and the pit. (Which is which depends on where you’re sitting.) The chair of judges, Peter Stothard, is an impeccable Establishment figure, a committee type and a former editor of the Times, knighted for his services to journalism; but he is also the current editor of the Times Literary Supplementand, as the occupier of that position, a legitimate, you could say obvious, candidate. It’s understandable that a prize with  a corporate sponsor, seeking national press coverage, should put emphasis on name recognition as well as cast-iron suitability and, within the constraints of this necessary and hardly abhorrent compromise, Stothard is as good a choice as any.

A similarly canny logic underpins the selection of the actor Dan Stevens, who also ticks the relevant boxes. Stevens, one of the stars of Downton Abbey, studied English literature at Cambridge and his Booker credentials are strong – he played Nick Guest in Saul Dibb’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, he read the audio book of Wolf Hall and he appeared on The Review Show last October to discuss the prize. Stothard was careful to play down the extent to which his jury stands in reproach to Stella Rimington’s but it’s too late for Stevens, who, when discussing the “books that zip along” shortlist, said that the jury last year had failed in their stated aim to pick “readable” books by including Carol Birch’s novel Jamrach’s Menagerie.

I have a few quibbles with Stothard’s rhetoric. I am uneasy about the insistence, as a criterion, on “the shock of language” – it risks constructing a system of judgement whereby Will Self (Umbrella) and Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis) would have to be preferred to Pat Barker (Toby’s Room). And he has been too diplomatic in his stated refusal to pass judgement on publishers who have turned down particular books. He claims that a prize jury is the only professional audience concerned with quality alone – but
a shrewd publisher ought to see that a novel stands a good chance of winning a prize, a reliable route to commercial success. One of the books on Stothard’s shortlist, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, was published by the independent imprint And Other Stories (AOS), which works by annual subscription (£50 buys you six books), after being rejected by what we are encouraged to call “mainstream publishers”, though, as a result of a distribution deal between AOS and Faber, it is now being distributed by one of the houses that (I am told) turned it down. (Another book on the shortlist, Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, is published by the small but well-established independent Salt.)

It’s part of the job description of a Booker judge to be deflective and non-committal. My attempts to ease secrets out of a judge I spied swaying in a tent about a month ago met with no success. So I will be left wondering – for as long as I keep up the energy to care – how it came about that a jury of intelligent and apparently careful readers produced a longlist containing a clumsy farce by Michael Frayn but neither of the trenchant novels about South Africa, Patrick Flanery’s Absolution and Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present, both of which were eligible. (That the jury didn’t make use of the 13th spot on the longlist suggests a lack of collective desire to recognise these novels or prominent work by Ian McEwan, Lawrence Norfolk and Zadie Smith.)

As for the shortlist eventually settled on, there is no clear front-runner (as distinct from a book that received the most attention – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies), though to set the bar low, it looks likely that whatever novel takes the laurels will reflect better on the prize and on the possibilities and reality of the Commonwealth novel than Howard Jacobson’s reflexive cynicism or Julian Barnes’s crabbed cleverness. (A year on, admirers of Barnes’s book The Sense of an Ending appear incapable of agreeing of whether it’s ironic or sincere – whether it’s a narrative of recovery and epiphany or stasis.)

Answering the question before it was put, Stothard said that the books were whittled down – from 145 to six – through “argued literary criticism. There really isn’t any other way.” But one of the limitations, and possibly mercies, of Booker judging is that some variation on good manners prevents judges from describing the process in any detail. It would be invidious or unfair, so the thinking goes, to single out a book for praise or blame and it has therefore to be taken on trust that the discussion was of a high standard and not what Stothard calls “opinion masquerading as literary criticism”. Even if we’re not permitted to hear the individual notes, Stothard has been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer