In a refreshing “quiet part loud” moment earlier this fall, this year’s celebrity Booker judge, Peep Show’s Robert Webb, admitted publicly that it’s basically impossible to read the entire pre-longlist pool of 163 books in seven months. While that’s not exactly a novel-a-day, as Webb suggests, it’s pretty damn hard, particularly if you have a day job that has nothing to do with reading books.
Webb’s big mistake, of course, wasn’t that he didn’t finish every single novel, but that he admitted it. Most of us who read professionally can tell by the 50-page mark if we don’t like a book: the DNA of truly great writing is usually there in each sentence, each paragraph, and so we read on.
I certainly don’t blame Webb—nor, even, do I blame the Booker Committee for trying to cover as many titles as possible. But maybe those 163 titles could be spread a bit more thinly among the five judges? If each judge read 70 books that would insure each book was read by at least two judges. Or, and I think this is better: reduce the pool to a tidy one hundred books. No one is going to seriously argue there are more than 20 great novels published in a year (and that’s being very generous).
It’s always been the case that the more you look behind the scenes of literary prizes the more arbitrary (and silly, frankly) the whole enterprise seems. If we’re being honest, the point isn’t to pick the ONE TRUE best novel (that’s not how art works) but rather to remind the broader public that novels exist, that they should be celebrated, and, while we’re at it, purchased in hardcover for $29.99.