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The London literati love to complain about the annual Booker Prize, the £20,000 award celebrating the best British novel of the year. The moment the judges laurel a work like Possession or The God of Small Things, critics line up to be the first to slam the winner as "vapid" (Byatt) or "incomprehensible" (Roy). However, the National Cash Registers (NCR) award, Britain's most prestigious nonfiction prize, has traditionally been a quieter affair. For example, last year's winner--Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy, a narrative history of the Russian Revolution--was universally greeted as a worthy title. But the £27,000 prize did nonetheless cause a considerable row: Soon after a few terribly honest judges admitted that the committee hadn't gotten around to plowing through all the entries, sponsor NCR canceled the ten-year-old competition for good.

So what happened? Prior to the awards ceremony, Clive Anderson, a television personality who served as panel chairman, assured the public that all 122 titles were properly read by at least one judge. However, the night of the posh celebration dinner at London's Dorchester Hotel, several panelists let it slip that a team of "professional readers" had provided the five-person celebrity panel with assistance in the form of short "preliminary reports." Indeed, one panelist confided to the The Observer that a fellow judge had failed to read any of the books in their entirety.

All this struck many British wags as cheating. When The Observer pressed chairman Anderson about the exact number of books he had read, he said, "Dozens, that's about as precise as I can be, though I didn't read every word because you can tell if a book's bad from the title or from the first page or the second page or the third page...."

David Taylor, a writer for the British publishing chronicle The Bookseller, also defended his honor to The Observer. "We are busy working people," he protested. "We just haven't got the time. Some of the books are 500-page jobs on subjects such as...the death of the British countryside." To be fair, unlike those "professional readers," the judges do have a lot to juggle: Among the panelists were London Times columnist Nigella Lawson and astronomer Heather Couper--who was so busy trotting the globe that she requested committee meetings be held near Heathrow.

British literary critic Robert McCrum was unmoved by the panelist's special pleading, noting in The Observer that no French literary-prize judge would admit to such a crime. (He did not, of course, claim the French judge would actually finish the reading.) For McCrum, the moral was simple. "Subcontract your reading to outsiders," he intoned, "and you undermine the consequence of the whole enterprise."

Apparently, NCR agreed: The Ohio-based computer corporation announced this past December that sponsorship of the prize "no longer fits comfortably" with its marketing strategy. But were such extreme measures necessary? As author Blake Morrison suggested to The Observer, perhaps the sponsor could have taken a tip from the Booker: Despite grumblings from publishing companies, Booker officials recently restricted the number of books publishers could submit to two. The new system supposedly ensures that every book is read by at least one judge.

Of course, most literary-prize committees get by just fine with a little skimming on the sly. The novelist William Gass claims that the practice is inevitable. Indeed, rush jobs "are very common when there are a lot of books being judged for a prize," he says. "You can toss some after five, ten pages." In most cases, he avers, it's difficult to get caught: "The more books, the larger the number of judges, the more people you can hide behind." But if judges do get caught, it's hardly a surprise that sponsors would be tempted to pull the plug . As Gass wrote in his 1985 essay, "Pulitzer: The People's Prize": "Someone always foots the bill, of course, and when the outcome doesn't smartly show the shoes, the shoes are inclined to squeak."


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