Diary - Francine Stock

I volunteered a novel I had enjoyed. "That book makes me sick," said a fellow judge. "Well, books on

D B C Pierre, then. No going back, no more persuasion, defiance, prevarication or civilised sulking. The Booker judges' decision was taken between five and six o'clock in genteel incarceration at the British Museum. We didn't hang about, which is a tribute to John Carey's chairmanship, but that's not to say there weren't doubts or qualifications, books passed over with regret. This year's judges may have been less confrontational than some, but all prizes are a percolation of enthusiasms and prejudices, with a touch of personal antagonism. The grit helps the debate.

Not that it was all cerebral stuff - despite the amassed brainpower and experience around the table. One particular exchange at the early stages began when I volunteered a novel I had enjoyed. An eminent judge shot it down: "That book makes me sick." "Well, books on your list make me sick, too," I snapped back. Repartee worthy of the premier English-language literary prize.

So the novel itself, Vernon God Little. Forget the details of the author's life: we certainly tried to, and so has he, I guess. It won because it is a compelling and ultimately exhilarating journey through parts of American culture that simultaneously obsess and terrify us. Much of the subject matter will be familiar from Coen Brothers films or CNN. The gun-toting pacifist recurs in the work of a whole range of American writers, including Tom Robbins. The debt to Salinger gets several explicit references, but if the setting and the voice are those of an insider, the overall perspective is not.

And is it anti-American? I don't think so. Anti-gun, anti-murder, anti-death penalty, certainly, but like a reluctant, recalcitrant 15-year-old, the book eventually mutters its love.

What conclusions can you draw from all 117 books submitted? Very few. Yet there are recurring themes: celebrity, inevitably, but also the absence of children, illegal immigration and migration in general, and what I suppose you might call affairs of the head. By that I mean the growing interest in the way the brain works, personality disorders, synaesthesia, autism, head injury and the process of memory. Expect more.

BBC2 decided to make a documentary about the Booker Prize judges . . . reading. The leaden challenge of making scintillating pixels from five characters in search of an author fell to the film-maker James Nutt. He managed to craft a quirky and funny narrative, but then he was relatively lucky with four of them - particularly Carey, who is both brilliant and keeps bees. I was Ms Grumpy, worrying in her dark shed.

In general, though, the reality TV genre is exhausted, getting its only fun from nastiness and humiliation. Time for the lethal injection. And yet, collapsed in front of the television on a Wednesday night, I saw a watchable example. I'd thought When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum would be a Ballard-like collision, as political point-scoring slammed into schadenfreude. The result was intriguing and contradictory. On some counts, he did well (money, persistence, steely calm under pressure); then again, he was outwitted and outcharmed by a 12-year-old, failed to engage with the other children, and ended the week flu-ridden and politely dejected. His impossible mission was to fill in for an attractive paragon - a highly capable mother who was refreshingly generous in her analysis of his performance. Stereotypes were punctured all round. And if Portillo thought this might help some long-term election strategy, he must be a gambler.

Any Booker regrets? Since the rule about not naming any novel not longlisted has been thrown aside by Chairman John, with his informal recommendations in the Sunday Times . . . Psst, if you want a sharply funny take on the guerrilla warfare of manners among the affluent, try David Flusfeder's The Gift, or you could enter the politico-erotic puzzle of Jim Crace's Six, or read Esther Freud's The Sea House or Louise Doughty's Fires in the Dark. Or, like me for the next few months, you could go to the cinema.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for childhood