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John Jenkins August 10


The August column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


What are the odds on you backing the Booker winner?

By John Jenkins

Certain factors govern the year in Britain, Christmas and Easter, Wimbledon, the Derby and Royal Ascot. The first cuckoo heralds spring and when you see two swallows summer is here.

But autumn is surely in the offing in the literary world when the bookies begin offering odds on the longlist for the Booker Prize. Despite the PR efforts of the new sponsors, to make it the Man Booker etc it’s known to us scribes merely as the Booker.

Assuming you are a writer and reader of some judgement it should be easy for you to pick up a few quid by backing two or three at what we punters know as ante post.

Here’s the runners and riders. (Sorry, I mean books and authors).

Favourite is The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Her story is set against the backdrop of the 1831 slave rebellion in Jamaica.

Close behind at 9 – 2 is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. His tale concerns a Dutch book-keeper who falls in love with a Japanese midwife in 18th century Japan.

No surprises to find the elegant Helen Dunmore with The Betrayal at 5 - 1. Her novel concerns a young couple living in Leningrad in the 1950s. Seems an odd setting but any totalitarian state would do.

Next up is that accomplished novelist Rose Tremain with Trespass at 6 – 1. This is her 11th novel and it is set in the south of France where siblings quarrel over the sale of an old farmhouse. It’s a sort of cross between A Year in Provence and a mystery for Morse.

Two times former winner Peter Carey is at 7 – 1 with his quirky offering: Parrot and Olivier in America, followed by Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson at 8 - 1.

Other authors on the longlist include Emma Donoghue, Tom McCarthy, Alan Warner, Damon Galgut, Lisa Moore, and Christos Tsiolkas.

The wonder is, who sits down in the bookies’ office and reads all these and makes a valued judgement to come up with the odds? The answer is nobody. They merely ring up a few literary editors and figures in publishing and ask for views.

As the first prize is worth £50,000 to the winner the participants take more than a passing interest in the charade.

The judges are: Sir Andrew MotionEnglish poet, novelist and biographer; Poet Laureate of United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009; during his laureateship founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work, chairman, Rosie Blau who writes for the Financial Times, Deborah Bull who was a dancer with the Royal Ballet, Tom Sutcliffe who writes for the Independent and Frances Wilson.

Frances Wilson, who lectured on Eng Lit for 15 years and has written half a dozen decent books is probably the best writer of the bunch whose literary output has so far not set the world on fire.

As a student of literary form you will try to anticipate the judges’ choice.

Will they go for the popular, humorous novel? Will they go for political correctness? Or perhaps for literary merit? There again, will they choose originality? Are we going to get a choice to delight literary luvvies, the beards and sandals brigade, the twinset and pearls buyers or the ordinary Joe who likes a good read?

If it’s the politically correct lobby’s turn for a winner Andrea Levy is home and dry.

Remember Motion’s Gang of Four have already discarded Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Yann Martell and Roddy Doyle – all previous winners.

Now that doesn’t fill me with confidence and when I look at past winners I shudder at some of the choices.

Of course, there is always the log-rolling factor. For those of you who do not read Private Eye, let me explain.

Let’s suppose I have written a book long listed for the Booker. I ring you, my friend, who I know is going to write a feature for one of the heavies on "Books to read on Holiday." Mine will get a generous mention. And perhaps next year I’ll return the favour for him, or his girl friend, or another pal who shares the same agent.

Then I might release a paragraph or two to say two companies are said to be bidding for the film rights, or that one of the chapters was written by my 15-year-old grand daughter. More headlines, more publicity, more sales and subtle pressure on the judges.

Can I get it picked up for one of the radio or television programmes on books? Perhaps I could even be interviewed by Mark Lawson on radio? Gasp, gosh, glass of water please. Perhaps Alistair Campbell or Max Clifford could fix it for me. Unfortunately I don’t know either of them.

Perhaps my publisher could be persuaded to pay £35,000 to one of the book chains to have my book named 'Manager’s Choice of the Month' and raise the profile even higher.

I remember one pompous author – amazingly shortlisted for the Booker many years ago – told a festival at Caerleon that it cost £100,000 to win the Booker. I suspect he made up that figure to excuse the fact that he did not win. But certainly some publishers will add their financial muscle in the hope of having a winner.

For me, there will be a modest wager on Howard Jacobson. He writes with great style, makes me laugh and wears his ability without affectation. Rose Tremain is another author who combines style with entertainment, probably more than anyone else on the short ist. I think I will read both books first and then plunge my tenner on one of them.

Of course, it is up to you how you back your judgement. So where should your money go?

The last time I had a bet on the Booker I put a tenner on William Trevor, easily the class act in a field of donkeys. I got 20 – 1 and felt very smug.

Well, Trevor didn’t win, which shows not only how a fool and his money are soon parted but how lucky they are to get together in the first place.

It also showed how little I know about it. And, in my far from humble opinion, it also shows how little the judges knew about that list of Booker finalists.

Anyway, read for pleasure and leave gambling well alone.


John Jenkins' July column dealt with dialogue - let your characters tell the story.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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