Imagine a major prize for new discovery in quantum physics in awarding which the chair of the judges announced proudly: "Actually I have never heard of the Big Bang theory." But in the wacky world of British book culture other rules apply. Michael Portillo, now Mr. Nice Guy having shed his horrible Thatcherite associations and having been on the telly a lot, is this year's Chair of the Man Booker fiction prize judging panel. He announced on Tuesday at the unveiling of the shortlist of six authors: "I am not a literary expert." Louise Doughty, one of the other judges, who, though she doesn't say so herself, I should have thought from her work is 'a literary expert' explained (helpfully for anyone with hopes of being a future Man Booker winner) that what she was looking for was a "page-turner". Having myself just re-read Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground with the pages flying out of my hands as I was whipped along by his astonishing flow of words, I have never understood this "page-turner" notion which is so often deployed as a weapon in the war against serious writing. But Louise Doughty had more insights for us: "The ability to come up with a good plot and create a good structure are great literary qualities - it is not just about how to make a finely turned sentence. The ability to move a story on in an engaging way, and the creation of character - these are great literary skills." Damn those finely-turned sentences!
The other casualty of the day was Salman Rushdie, grand old man of the litprize culture, who was left off because his work is "patchy" and, presumably, the pages hadn't moved for Michael and his team in this instance. The Guardian called this a "rebuff" but maybe his "great literary skills" were simply having a holiday from the Booker. A holiday from the Booker. Now there's a good plot idea.