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Bated breath for the Booker

It's much more a matter of cachet than cash, this award for 'best' novel that inspires betting and can anoint an instant literary lion. And we'll learn the winner today.

October 10, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The Man Booker is the mother of all literary prizes.

But it isn't for the $91,800 cash award that grown men threaten to shoot themselves. It isn't for the unquestionable increase in profits from sales, likely film and foreign rights. It isn't even for the glamour, though tonight's announcement, televised throughout the United Kingdom, is more like our Oscars than any bookish ceremony.

It is for the sheer, indelible prestige of the thing.

More prestigious than the Pulitzers or the National Book Awards in the U.S., the Booker is given simply for the "best" novel of the year, in English, by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen and published in the U.K. That's "best," as Sir Michael Caine, one of the Booker's founding advisors and chairman until 1993, once said, "as in the best book I've read all year." "There's nothing like the Booker in America," says Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. The National Book Awards simply do not, he says, drive up sales like the Booker, and the Pulitzer "just doesn't start the same conversation."

The Booker does both.

"It's a bit of a life-changer," says first-time nominee Zadie Smith, whose "On Beauty" is among the six short-listed novels announced on Sept. 8. On the final leg of her recent U.S. book tour, hunkered down behind a desk in the back room of Dutton's Beverly Hills, the 29-year-old author covers her face with her hands. "You can't talk about it," she moans. "You can't. You just can't."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Booker Prize -- An article in Monday's Calendar section about the Man Booker literary prize incorrectly referred to Bret Easton Ellis' novel "Lunar Park" as "Luna Park."

Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the veterans in this year's final group, won the prize in 1989 for "The Remains of the Day." He was short-listed in 1986 for "An Artist of the Floating World" and again in 2000 for "When We Were Orphans," and this year for his chilling novel of biotechnology run amok, "Never Let Me Go." "Being short-listed caused a huge change in my personal life," says the author, at home in Golders Green in north London. "Until then, I was knocking on doors. Afterward, my wife and I started to get a different kind of dinner invitation altogether."

"The Booker has enormous international cachet," says London agent Peter Straus, who in his 20 years of literary work (12 as publisher of Picador) has published and made deals for the likes of Helen Fielding, Cormac McCarthy and two of this year's finalists -- John Banville and Sebastian Barry. "It's not just a British prize," he reminds, "it's a Commonwealth prize. It's a big deal in places like New Zealand and Ireland and Australia. If an Irish author is short-listed, it's the cover of the Irish Times."

Here's how it works: U.K. publishers may submit two books by April 4. An advisory committee, led by prize administrator Martyn Goff, chooses a panel of five judges, usually including an academic, a literary critic, an editor, a novelist and a "major figure" (as in a politician or actor). "We don't want five people who shout," says Goff, an 82-year-old book dealer and 35-year veteran of the process, from his book-lined office in Sonderan's Antiquarian Booksellers, a mouth-watering shop near London's Savile Row and Bond Street.

The judges, who are given no criteria other than to "find the best novel," must then choose a long list from the hundred-plus entries. (This year, 109 were submitted.) Several months later, the short list of six books is announced. A month later, a dinner is held in London's Guildhall. A few hours before dinner, the judges, who are given about $8,600 each for their pains, meet and, in a discussion that takes roughly two hours, decide the winner, who is announced over "pudding."

Competition though it may be, the Booker has coursed through the veins of many a literary friendship: Barry, the Irish playwright and author short-listed this year for his deeply moving novel of World War I, "A Long Long Way," says that a few hours after he got the call, his good friend and fellow Dubliner Colm Toibin, whose novel "The Master" was short-listed last year, rang him up.

"I picked up the phone," said Barry, slouching on a sofa in his London publisher's office, "and it was Colm. His book and my book sat side by side on the coffee table in front of me. 'You're going to need good shoes,' says Colm. 'Don't go to Moss Bros. [to buy them].' And here I am," says Barry in a rising brogue, "just after goin' to Moss Bros."

Julian Barnes, who is also on this year's short list for his "Arthur & George," a novel based on an incident in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is to be published in the U.S. in January, says that "when you don't win, you feel as though you've let other people down. Writing is not a competitive sport." Nonetheless, says Barnes, who has been short-listed three times (in 1984 for "Flaubert's Parrot" and in 1998 for "England, England"), he will not be able to read the other novels on this year's list until after the dinner. "I just wouldn't be able to read them correctly," he says looking composed but a little pale.

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