Popularity pays off for Roy

By Dan Glaister, arts correspondent

Tuesday October 14, 1997 , The Guardian

After facing weeks of criticism for choosing an obscure shortlist, the Booker Prize was last night awarded to the most genuinely popular novelist on the list, Arundhati Roy, for The God of Small Things.

Roy's novel, her first, has been a strong seller since its publication, with sales increasing since the announcement of the shortlist a month ago. Accordingly, and with strong support in the press, Roy ended the proceedings as favourite with the bookmakers when the book was closed on Monday. She had opened at third favourite.

Chairwoman of the judges, Gillian Beer, said: "With extraordinary linguistic inventiveness, Arundhati Roy funnels the history of south India through the eyes of seven-year-old twins. The story she tells is fundamental as well as local: it is about love and death, about lies and laws. Her narrative crackles with riddles and yet tells its tale quite clearly. We were all engrossed by this moving novel."

Roy was presented with the cheque for #20,000 in a ceremony at Guildhall in the City of London last night. But the celebrations were curtailed when it emerged that Carmen Callil, outspoken chair of last year's Booker judges, had said on television that The God of Small Things should not have been on the shortlist. It was, she said, an "execrable" book.

The novel has also provoked controversy in Roy's native India, where its depiction of inter-caste relations has led to charges that she has corrupted public morals. The author has appealed, and has been granted a temporary stay until November.

Roy, in time-honoured fashion, said that she did not know what she would spend her #20,000 winnings on. "Money is a very complicated thing," she said, "and more so if you live in India. It puts a lot of responsibility on me. I won't do something just to salve my guilt. It will not be a public gesture."

Asked if winning the Booker Prize was significant to her, she replied: "For me this prize is about my past, not about my future. It is very nice for me to receive this prize, but I think that reviews and prizes are more for readers than for writers."

The Booker Prize chairman, Martyn Goff, said the judging had been "strongly, sharply argued" with Roy emerging as the consensus candidate.

It is understood that The God of Small Things was hard pressed by Jim Crace's Quarantine and Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes. "Nobody objected to the Roy," said Mr Goff. "The objections to the MacLaverty included the fact that he was a wonderful short-story writer and that Grace Notes was three short stories strung together."

Despite her protestations that she does not wish to write another novel immediately, Roy will find the passage eased not only by the prize money but by the likely sales. Last year's winner, Graham Swift's Last Orders, sold 54,000 paperback copies.

Although the choice of Roy as winner will provide a much-needed fillip to this year's Booker, the lacklustre nature of this shortlist has done much to fuel criticism of the Booker Prize's claims to be the British equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or the American Pulitzer Prize. With other literary prizes such as the Orange Fiction Prize for Women offering more prize money and investing in education initiatives, the Booker's time as the cream of literary awards may be coming to an end.

The Brit reaction to the Booker.

Lisa Jardine attended the Booker Prize ceremony, applauded the winner, and overhead rumblings of late-imperial displeasure from the boys in the back room.

by Lisa Jardine

She won! Two minutes before this year's Booker Prize winner was announced on October 15 at London's imposing Guildhall, Arundhati Roy and her editor slipped out of the room with an official, and the eagle-eyed among us knew the outcome--The God of Small Things was about to collect 20,000 in prize money, plus an additional 1,000 awarded this year to every author on the shortlist.

Chair of the judges, Professor Gillian Beer, of Cambridge University presented the "unanimous" choice: "We were all engrossed by this moving novel. With extraordinary linguistic inventiveness, Roy funnels the history of south India through the eyes of 7-year-old twins. The story she tells is fundamental as well as local: it is about love and death, about lies and laws." At our table we rose and cheered. Roy, who had prepared no acceptance speech and was tearful on the podium, was a gracious and modest winner.

Around the room, however, there followed much bad-tempered whispering behind hands amidst the mostly male editors of the broadsheet newspapers' literary pages.

"What a shame--and Bernard MacLaverty so needed the money." "A poor choice from an undistinguished shortlist."

"Of course, once Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, and John Banville weren't short-listed, the whole exercise became meaningless."

It was immediately leaked that the judges' agreement had not been as secure as Professor Beer had implied: Roy's book had been "hard pressed" by Jim Crace's Quarantine and MacLaverty's Grace Notes. I have not heard such an immediately ungenerous response to the announcement since the last novel by a woman (Pat Barker's Ghost Road) won in 1995.

The critics seemed determined to trash Arundhati Roy before the words were out of Professor Beer's mouth. Actually, they were roundly trashing her an hour earlier on prime-time TV.

Channel 4's coverage of the Booker (wrested from the BBC by the promise of more, and more serious, airtime in the run-up to the announcement) included a round-table debate by heavyweights Melvyn Bragg, A. S. Byatt, Will Self, and Carmen Callil (last year's Chair of Booker judges). Callil pronounced The God of Small Things "an execrable book" which should never have reached the shortlist. And the following morning, the story filed by the Guardian's reporter was headlined "A contest won in a vacuum: no one reading, no one caring."

The malice of the British writers and critics is in striking contrast to international readers' response to The God of Small Things, and tells us a lot about the damaging insularity of the U.K. literary scene. Over and over again Roy's book was called "derivative" because it was about India (and hadn't Salman Rushdie already "done" India?), whereas MacLaverty's was praised for its theme of return to a troubled homeland, which "is a favorite theme for Irish novelists at the moment,amounting almost to a genre."

My own favorite moment of the evening came later on, as I was talking to Salman Rushdie. An excited young critic rushed up to us. "Are you worried, Salman? Is it going to bother you now that there's another Indian novelist on the scene?" Rushdie shrugged politely. India, after all, is a very large country, Britain a very small one. Two Indian novelists on the British literary stage surely doesn't amount to overcrowding.