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Neck ache, bad sex... who'd be a Booker judge?

5 October 09 08:20 GMT

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

At midday on Tuesday, the five judges of this year's Man Booker Prize will gather to decide the winner.

A few hours later, the victorious author will be handed the £50,000 prize during a ceremony at London's Guildhall.

But what does being a Booker judge actually involve?

Author and critic Lucasta Miller is one of this year's judges. Here she reveals some requirements of the job: Adrenalin, a sharp pencil and a good osteopath.


How did you get to be a Booker judge?

It was nearly a year ago. I bumped into Jim Naughtie [chairman of the judges] at a party, and he said he was going to be in touch with me about something. I had an inkling, and then I got the phone call the next day.

How many books did you have to read?

One hundred and thirty-two. The first books started to arrive at the beginning of this year - but only about 7 or 8. I read these in an incredibly leisurely fashion, and wrote beautifully crafted reviews, because I'm an over-conscientious swot.

I hadn't quite taken on board what it was going to be like. And then the books started arriving in great big boxes on a daily basis. Between April and July - when you do most of the reading - it was like revising for finals.

I'd sit at the desk with a very sharp pencil in my hand, read a novel before lunch, then try and read another novel after lunch, and write them both up in the evening. You're having to do it at an adrenalin-fuelled pace at that stage.

Did that mean drinking a lot of coffee?

I don't know how much I was using coffee, but my osteopath diagnosed "Booker neck" [bursts out laughing] from sitting stationary in a reading position for hours and hours and hours a day.

You still have the books lined up against the wall...

Some of the other judges have got them in piles around the house, or maybe some in their bedroom, but I have always kept mine all together - lined up against the wall like a firing squad, or a chorus line.

A firing squad! Is that what you feel when you walk in the room?

I feel incredibly benevolent towards them. I've been living with them for a very long time. My husband keeps saying when are we going to put these away? They've become part of the furniture.

How often do the judges get together?

We had an early meeting to get to know each other. Once we'd got all the books we had a preliminary meeting here around the kitchen table, and did an initial cull.

And then we had a long meeting to decide the long list. Before the meeting we each wrote down our top 12. What was interesting is that there was a huge amount of overlap.

So what happens on Tuesday?

We meet at midday, the pre-dinner drinks start at 6.30pm, but who knows if we'll have made a decision by then? It can go right to the wire.

It's been a completely wonderful experience doing the Booker. We've been so lucky because not only has the average quality been really high, also the judges get on really well as a group. I feel quite euphoric so far about how it's gone.

How many times have you read the shortlisted novels?

Three times. The re-reading of the long list I found so interesting - you could really see what could withstand analysis and repeated reading.

Some of them I enjoyed so much I was picking them up in bed at night, others I had to sit at a desk in work mode.

Bookers aside, what one novel do you have a close relationship with?

Probably Jane Eyre. It's an absolutely extraordinary novel. I wrote a book about the Bronte sisters [The Bronte Myth] because I'd always admired Jane Eyre so much.

It withstands re-reading, if you want to read it as an escape it's got that slightly fairytale aspect to it. But it's also got such incredible sophistication and emotional depth. Charlotte Bronte has such a strong individual voice.

With the Booker I think that would be one way of summing up what we were looking for: Writers that had a strong individual voice.

Someone gives you the new Dan Brown novel for your birthday - what do you do with it?

I've never read a Dan Brown novel so I'd be quite intrigued. I'd definitely have a look.

What's your favourite Booker anecdote?

We've had a lot of laughs... [thinks] I'm hyper-sensitive to bad sex in novels...

Was there much bad sex among the Booker nominees?

I don't think there was more sex than usual - it is possible to write about sex, but it's very difficult. [Laughs] I don't think I'm going to carry on.

Would you like to go and find a good sex scene and read it out?

I think not... [more laughter]

The 2009 Booker judges are broadcaster James Naughtie (Chair); biographer and critic Lucasta Miller; Michael Prodger, literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph; Professor John Mullan, academic, journalist and broadcaster and Sue Perkins, comedian, journalist and broadcaster.

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