The Man Booker Prize would be a dull thing (except for the winner) if it didnt provoke discussion. No discussion, no controversy, no interest not very much, anyway. A good row gets people talking, and pleases the sponsors. Even when there is no serious disagreement, with judges coming close to blows and the decision not being reached until the dinner guests are arriving, its become customary for one or two of the panel to break silence and offer a few remarks calculated to stir things up. Omert is no longer the rule, as it was when I was a judge 25 years ago. Our chairman then was P D James, who brought to the role not only her fine critical power of discrimination between good and bad, but the probity and discretion of the senior civil servant she had been. This years chairman our former chief spook, Dame Stella Rimington has congratulated her colleagues (and, I suppose, herself) on producing a shortlist of readable books. Another judge, Susan Hill, has backed this up, and named some unreadable books on Twitter. These arent, Im sorry to say, those the judges flung aside in boredom or fury, but classics which, one assumes, she has never got through: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, for instance, and, rather oddly, War and Peace. The claim to have produced a readable shortlist has led some to suggest that the Booker, like the A-level, is being dumbed down. Is literary merit being sacrificed to readability? Is this why Alan Hollinghursts latest novel, The Strangers Child, hasnt made the list? Answer: almost certainly not. Mr Hollinghurst is always readable. More probably, his book is not there because some of the judges didnt like it. Thats what happens with judges. They like some books and dislike others, just as the person whom Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader does. There is sometimes, admittedly, an opposition between literary merit and readability, or easy accessibility. Henry James is a great novelist, but there are many who find his work slow, mannered, laboured and boring. They dont see what all the fuss is about. If the Booker had existed in his day, and he had won it with, say, The Ambassadors, most of the novel-reading public would have greeted the news with a groan. It would still have been a worthy winner. In the great age of the novel, the 19th century, almost all authors wrote for people who bought novels simply because they enjoyed them. This was, after all, the only reason to read them. Nobody was asked to pass exams on the novel, or taught them in universities: indeed, there was little academic criticism of fiction. The novel was a form that ranked rather low, to the extent that the term the literary novel came into use not much more than 100 years ago. Arnold Bennett a popular and deeply serious novelist, who disliked the idea of writing for a coterie, rather than the general public wrote an article deploring it. He would probably have been on Dame Stellas side. In the end, all judgments on literature are subjective. There are no absolute standards. Judges ask themselves, and each other: is this a good novel? Is it well written? Is it distinctive or run-of-the-mill? Am I likely to want to read it again, and will I get more out of it when I do? Will it still be read in 20, 30, 50 years? Its obvious that there are no certain answers to these questions. People will even disagree about the quality of the writing. What one reader finds to be stylistic brilliance, another condemns as showing off. Some delight in the manner of the writing; others are more concerned with the matter. So the disagreements between judges may be sharp but they are usually honest. Twenty years ago, Nicholas Mosley resigned from the Booker panel because his colleagues wouldnt put a novel of mine on the shortlist. Indeed, he went further, saying that they didnt like any of the novels he liked, and werent interested in novels of ideas. I was grateful to him for defending my book; indeed, I still am. But even then, I couldnt dismiss the other judges as fools. They were the editor of the TLS, Jeremy Treglown, and three good novelists, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ann Schlee and Jonathan Keates. I mention this not to rake up an old argument or grievance, but rather to emphasise that good judges come to different conclusions. Better novelists than I have failed to win the Booker Muriel Spark, for instance. Anthony Burgess once said that he would attend the Booker dinner only if he won the prize. I dont know where he ate that night, though his Earthly Powers should have secured him the dinner. Instead, the prize went to William Golding for Rites of Passage. Few of Goldings warmest admirers would call that his best book. They might prefer Pincher Martin or the difficult but brilliant Darkness Visible, a novel so obscure that Golding himself always refused to discuss it. Rites of Passage was, however, by far the most readable book he had published since Lord of the Flies. The Booker made it a bestseller. Novels are written to be read, and people read novels for pleasure. But this, though true, doesnt take us far. You might, after all, say the same of a Mozart opera and a Lloyd Webber musical. Mozart, of course, has lasted, and Lloyd Webber probably wont, but when you are judging scores of this years novels, you can only guess which will survive and which wont. Longevity is a good test, but not one the Booker judges can apply. The winner will often be a compromise choice, unanimity among five judges being unlikely. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the book eventually chosen is the first choice of at least two of the judges, and not just everyones second choice. Looking back over the list of winners since 1969, the judges havent done badly. I would identify only three stinkers G by John Berger (1972), The Bone People by Keri Hulme (1985) and Vernon God Little by D B C Pierre (2003). Yet all three had their admirers and not only among the judges who chose them. In one sense, its a serious business, for it at least invites people to think about what a good book is, or should be. Yet some high-minded folk deplore it. Geoffrey Grigson thought it was an act of illiterates to give prizes for literature. More recently, V S Naipaul said: The Booker is murder. Absolutely nothing would be lost if it withered away and died. But I bet Sir Vidia didnt think like that when he won it in 1971. Telegraph