The announcement yesterday of an oddly truncated long list of 13 names (instead of the usual list of 20) for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction has resulted in expressions of surprise at the omissions of famous names like Graham Swift (a previous winner, however). The Booker has always been a rather odd annual fixture and one characterised by often quirky decisions. If you made a list of the best fiction of the last twenty years and compared this each year with the Booker winner you wouldn't find universal correspondences. Sometimes people win with the book that is not their best and sometimes outstanding books are ignored. Sometimes a book which is over-hyped wins and dutiful readers shimmy down to Waterstone's only to find half-way through that the hype hasn't worked for them. Later, the paperback version is found in profusion in the charity shops. The cycle is complete. The good news is that many small publishers and lesser-known names are on the longlist which should mean that the judges have ignored the hype and gone straight to the real quality. Let's hope it does mean that. J.M.Coetzee, who has won the Booker twice, could hardly expect to win again even if his new book will probably be head and shoulders above the rest, so one can see that judges might consider passing him by to give the others a chance. But let's keep our heads. Book prizes can be an amusing diversion but they are as arbitrary as a game of roulette. Good luck to the person whose number eventually comes up.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that only 110 novels were entered. I thought the line was that we were being drowned in a sea of overproduction of books. I would have expected that number to have been higher.