My year as a Man Booker Prize judge

In late November of last year, two packages arrived for me. One contained six novels, my first instalment of reading as a judge for the Man Booker Prize 2010, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. The second parcel was less tidily bundled: my first child, a daughter, born 20 minutes after I arrived at hospital late one rainy Saturday night.

I had been halfway through Roddy Doyle’s new novel when I noticed a drumming within. Romping through The Dead Republic, I was wondering why I hadn’t read more of his work when I realised that some interruptions cannot be ignored.

The day after my baby was born I got a phone call. My father’s prostate cancer had been escalating for a few months. His legs were painful and he was already having radiotherapy. Now he should start chemotherapy, the doctor said – the next day.

That week I took hundreds of photos of my floppy, funny baby, impossibly tiny in her Moses basket. People kept asking me how I was doing. Every evening I noted that tomorrow I would reply to my e-mails. I would read a newspaper. I wanted to cook. I wanted to look for clothes that might fit me again. The wintry days and wintry nights melded: cries of life, insatiable hunger, world at a remove.

From the deepening hollow of my sofa, my reading took me cottaging in a Cambridgeshire toilet, into the home of an Indian untouchable, along the path of the down and seriously out. As books editor of the Financial Times I get through a lot of contemporary fiction, but never before in this quantity. I read two Brideshead wannabes and an entire “lost” Shakespeare play. I met talking donkeys and intelligent dogs; I found out exactly what it is like to be a trout. The literary device of the confessional was used in countless volumes – mostly to a psychologist, occasionally a priest. I read repeatedly about the problems of coming out as a gay man; even in 2010, this is still a preoccupation. (It is worth noting that the “gay novel” on our list, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, is one in which the character happens to be gay – that is not his subject.)

Reading 138 books over the head of a suckling child felt, at times, like the worst possible way to enjoy or judge literature. I can’t imagine ever not wanting to read a novel but I did occasionally suffer mediocrity overload. I was shocked how many writers and editors allowed into print redundant adjectives, clichés and overwritten narratives. “Too long,” was my most frequent note. My low point came around the 60s, when I read 15 bland books in a row. Had I lost my judgment? Would I recognise a good book if I started it at 5am on the third feed of the night?

I believe it was number 78, Tom McCarthy’s C, which broke that spell – a novel blazing with energy and, for all its postmodern ambitions, a rich, old-fashioned yarn. And so it proved again and again: when you read that much, a good book sparkles more, not less, for sitting among the others. The stars really do shine brighter. The more you read, the more you realise what you are after: a novel that leaves you changed at the end of it, even slightly; a novel that runs around in your brain 10 books later; a novel that reminds you there is life beyond your baby.

The traditional news story asks what a longlist or shortlist shows about the year’s fiction, what the books have in common, what the judges were “looking for”. I have written such pieces myself. Certainly there are coincidences as you read – surprising repetition of names or tropes – but there are no themes, as such, and the judges are looking for nothing other than the best books. There were 13 and then six novels that impressed us the most.

There is always gossip, too, about books left off, famous authors “snubbed”. More than 10,000 novels are published in Britain every year. That’s a lot of words. Some of those words, and some of those books, are better than others. That’s how you get on to a list: your book is better. There is no snubbing, no conspiracy and no favouritism. Why did some books and not others make the shortlist from the longlist? Because we liked them more.

This year’s commentators have noted the humour in our selection: Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question is a brilliant and definitively funny novel which, as with all good comedy, explores a serious subject. Four of the other five are rich with wit and playfulness in their language, and in the exuberance of their telling.

So, we were asked, was the resurgence of “comic novels” down to the hard times the world was going through – when credit is crunched do we need a laugh more than ever? The answer, again, is no. Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are both funny books; Shakespeare never lost an opportunity for a good gag. As judges we all thought it important that we enjoyed the books but humour is only one facet of an entertaining novel. Like any attempt to find a common theme on a list, it’s just one of those coincidences. After all, it was last year’s judges, not this year’s, that included a professional comedian.

Reading is a solitary pursuit. But through the year I had a succession of meetings with my fellow judges: our chairman Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate; Deborah Bull, the creative director of the Royal Opera House; Tom Sutcliffe, the broadcaster and journalist and Frances Wilson, the biographer and critic. These dinners were a revelation and a salvation. A revelation, first, that there is such a thing as literary judgment. With a different five judges there might well have been some variation in the list. The wonder of reading is that every work is a contract with the imagination; every person experiences a different book. Yet often we were struck by the same works.

Judges’ meetings were also a private salvation for me because, in the early months of my daughter’s life, they were the only occasions on which I left the house alone. The first time I walked out of the house unencumbered, I nearly ran. Then I felt people must be staring, wondering where I’d left my baby.

Dinners with my fellow judges were also the only moments when I got to be me. Not a mother. Not a grieving daughter. Not a stay-at-home wife experiencing the world through the anecdotes of her husband. Not even a character in a book.

People often talk about the loss of identity of parenthood. Indeed I think part of being a mother is literally about subsuming your identity in that of your child. But as the months passed, another aspect of my identity was also sharpening – as my father was losing his fight, so I was more than ever a daughter. Though I had a child, I was, at 34, still very much a child myself.

So how did this all affect my reading? For of course it did – never trust a reader who claims to absorb a book untainted by her own encounters with life. I loved The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, a debut about a boy whose father tries to shield him from grief after his mother dies, and so prevents him experiencing life itself. I identified with the sentiments as a daughter whose parents avoided the nastier side of life. One of my fellow judges also loved it – his teenage son was wrestling to break free from just such over-protection, he said.

As my year progressed, reading got harder as my daughter slept less, at least by day. It was only when she went through a six-week patch of again waking up at night that I caught up on my reading. By the end of that phase I felt broken – but as a judge I was back in action.

As everything else sped up, however, my father was slowing down. He was not in pain, and he was still with us, but his presence was less sharp. He lurched between crises, then plateaued at a new level, slightly lower, occasionally better. Several times he got infections and was admitted to University College Hospital in central London, where my daughter had been born only months before, where I myself had been born. In June, he went into hospital once again.

When a friend’s father died some years before, I remember watching as she successfully commanded conversations at his funeral. That is grief. Not a different state or a different place, but a deep preoccupation through which life must continue. After my father died it took me three weeks to finish a single book.

Our judging meetings to decide the longlist and shortlist were more guarded than previous gatherings. We began not with gossip about the books we hated, but with persuasive speeches about the works we loved. By this stage it was a very personal process – in recent months we had all forsaken other lives for the printed page.

I expected arguments and tense moments as we battled for “our” books. In fact discussion, chaired brilliantly by Andrew Motion, was surprisingly consensual.

Longlisting was a distillation of millions of words read by five people into an entity of 13 books that we could now parade to the world. We had just over five weeks to read those 13 again – and then a full, luxurious six weeks to reread our shortlist. Only 60 pages a day, Deborah Bull announced.

People ask about the relevance of literature; why do we need stories when we all have our own? It is not a new idea that there are only a few basic plots in fiction – three, seven or 10, depending on who you believe. Even through 138 novels I read identical books several times.

In the same way, my life this year was both remarkable to me but unexceptional in the greater human sense. At 81, my father did not die before his time. He led a good life; he had 71 years more than Hitler would have allowed if he had not fled Poland on the last boat to England before war broke out in 1939. At the other end of the cycle, the birth of my daughter was miraculous and bounteous to me and my husband – but no exceptional event in the history of the world.

That we can tell and experience the same stories in an infinite number of ways is, for me, the glory of fiction. The uniqueness of life is repeated – again and again.

As my daughter grows up, hopefully it won’t leave a lasting scar that the stories she heard in the first months were not of Elmer’s Weather or Playtime with Maisy – but the crafted sentences of this year’s finest writers: Peter Carey, Emma Donoghue, Damon Galgut, Howard Jacobson, Andrea Levy and Tom McCarthy.

The winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday, October 12

What FT critics made of the shortlist

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Atlantic)

“A powerful three-part meditation on the relationship between travel, love and an off-kilter self ... Galgut’s language is sparse but potent.” VM

Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

“A work that is deeply unsettling on every level. It is a strange paradox that a book about imprisonment and torture should have become an arena for discussing the proper care and love of children. I think I am glad to have read it.” SB

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Faber)

“[It] rattles by ... with a twisty subplot about art and forgery and a large cast of characters including several love interests. The story sags in the latter stages, yet Carey’s high-wire prose ... never loses its tautness.” LH-T

C by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape)

“McCarthy’s project is ambitious, clever and, when he writes about it in essay form, exciting. As a novel, it remains frustrating. [The protagonist] Serge has to carry a lot of historical and intellectual baggage, and his motivation is often compromised by the allusions, nods and winks and dramatic irony that must be encoded by his actions.” ST

The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline Review)

The Long Song is beautifully written, intricately plotted, humorous and earthy. In patois-inflected prose, Levy conjures the greed and licentiousness of [Jamaica’s] sugar impresarios.” IT

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury)

“While The Finkler Question is both an entertaining novel and a humane one, it isn’t Howard Jacobson at his best. The characters are not as satisfyingly developed as in 2006’s superb Kalooki Nights and his writing here feels less precise than is his wont, less fresh and less frighteningly mordant.” HH

Reviews by Vesna Maric, Susie Boyt, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Scarlett Thomas, Ian Thomson, Henry Hitchings

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