Listen as you read. Narrator read by Gilly Anderson; Wye, Zob and Snell read by Peter Cowlam:

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is a satire
on literary celebrity, set in the relatively safe remove of early
1990s literary London. There are three main characters. The first is
Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has
previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or
something like that. Zob Junior is a literary celebrity, whose social
ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a
network of media and literati contacts. Zob can and does delude
himself that his success really is down to his genius. All that’s
missing from his CV is the Booker Prize, which he feels he should
have won, but hasn’t.

The second of the three main characters is Alistair Wye,
a computer science graduate who by some monumental fluke has been
hired as Zob’s amanuensis or assistant. Wye’s job prior to this
was as overseer of a computerised database, one designed by him for a
theatrical properties firm as a means of keeping track of its stock,
its orders, and its clients. The entire book is supposedly Wye’s
personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a
literary celebrity.

The third main character is the hapless Andrew Glaze,
one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University. Glaze is
already dead before the action of the novel starts. As Wye notes in
the foreword to his diary, news of his death was ‘a passing that
hardly caused me to put down my coffee cup, or extinguish my
cigarette’. It’s a passing that’s important to Zob, since back
in the 1970s he was not only Glaze’s student, he was his star
student, or as Wye puts it, also in his foreword,

Marshall Zob, should you not already know, is the
perfection of the dead Andrew Glaze, PhD, whose brightest student he
was. This was back in the early 1970s, in the cloisters of Modern
College, Exe University, where the writer and academic, and Blagueur
Prize-winner (twice), the witty Zob Senior [that’s to say
Marshall’s father], had passed before him. [Incidentally, Zob
Senior was also Glaze’s friend and colleague. I am not meaning to
suggest by this any hint of nepotism, which Glaze himself has
remarked the English are so touchy about.]

Glaze’s personal life hasn’t been a great success.
Prior to the novel’s opening, his marriage has collapsed and his
wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to
marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers. All of this is
chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in
Zob’s archive.

Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and
keeps them dotted around in no particular order. Furthermore his
replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient
IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite
understood. That correspondence does still exist, somewhere on disc,
but when that ancient PC refuses to boot up it is Wye’s job to find
a solution and retrieve it all. In fact this becomes vital to Zob
since, as an important academic, Glaze’s life and work is about to
be commemorated publicly. For Zob there are also commercial
opportunities in reproducing and annotating his long exchange with
Glaze. Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC, and what he finds
there, and what he finds in Zob’s paper archive, forms much of the
material that ends up in his diary – which could be summed up as a
ruthless exposé of the life of a literary superstar.

He is amused to find, in Zob’s letter to Glaze dated
the 30th of May, reference to himself, on the subject of his
appointment, which reads as follows:

Most recent interview took place in my pool hall. I go
there a lot – it helps me to think, and relax. I couldn’t make it
– or rather him – out. A native of Manchester, yet talked like
colonial Tunbridge Wellian. His name’s Alistair, though he didn’t
hint at a Scottish connection. He seemed – which is perhaps the
operative word – seemed (stress) well informed generally. He
assumes I am of the Left, because he’s seen my byline in The
, and told me he’d read and liked my lampoon on the
decent, genteel exterior of former Tory prime ministers. I didn’t
say hear hear…

For all this his degree’s in computer science, though
the man was evasive about his university – a sleight of hand I
thought these boffins weren’t capable of, having no intelligence
outside that realm of the microchip. He could be very useful, as I
wouldn’t mind all that hardware paraphernalia – though God knows
I can make nor head nor tail of the box of tricks I have got. He
works, he says, for a theatrical properties company in Mortimer
Street, for whom he designed, wrote and installed a stock-and-order
system. He reads a great many science books, and for that reason
thinks he can talk down to me. I showed him a thing or two on the
pool table.

Wye remembers that interview differently. This is from
his diary entry of July the 4th:

The conversation we had in his pool hall was over a best
of three games, which did, it is true, end on the final black. This,
naïvely, he potted. The light from the canopy above, parcelled its
tiny quanta in a varied dilution of yellow. Here perfectly was Zob’s
imperfect illumination, in whose glaze I remarked on the soiled nap
of the table. ‘Successive smokers,’ I said, and chalked my cue.
Together we bent to those grey-green archipelagos, those swipes of
ground ash. ‘I am interested in music,’ I said, in reply to his
question what existed other than the written word. When he talked
about literary prostitution this was, he said, merely a term in a
very long series. According to him, we who worked prostituted
ourselves in one way or another. In a glum status quo few authors had
the courage to challenge anything. Did this, I asked, not leave your
fellow pool players intellectually in vacuo? And to talk of
society’s imbalance, wasn’t that merely society’s
impregnability? That was more or less it, he said, never having
claimed that the elevated tribes and scribes to whom he belonged
really did have a social conscience.

He potted a first yellow, calmly: wasn’t he after all
on the comic side of fiction, and therefore exempt? Then, he
imagined, he snookered me.

‘Let me show you,’ I said, ‘how to bend a ball….’
Awkward, of course, to cue, just as our human quarks or men of
conscience can’t with certainty cast their vote. To the massé
nevertheless. My stolid white dragged its heels round an interposing
yellow. It struck a side cushion and my object ball simultaneously.
Result: Not the pot he’d expected. I allowed him, O ye dumb angels,
bearing the professor’s footstool, just one more visit to the
table. I took that first game, it has to be said without much effort.
The second I gave him, only because he bought lunch, which consisted
of egg, cress, warm mayonnaise, sandwiched with expert inattention in
two squares of foam.

Now, as for those levitating letters tailing my surname,
I cannot legitimate the embossed sheen of a doctorate, the gold plate
of an MSc, nor even the albata filigree of a lowly MA. As a
short-trousered first-former, and I agree a touch Romantic, I took
Browning – with his ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!’ –
and that ricochet off the book of Ecclesiastes – ‘…all is
vanity’ – somewhat to heart. What after all is ‘education’
but the remorseless hum of commerce? At seventeen I wrote a one-page
constitution, governing the life, aim and ideals of Wye’s
pantisocracy. The project was doomed, naturally, depending for
sovereignty on a deserted, disintegrating cottage just outside a tiny
settlement called Capel, where I was known and loved. That wider
kingdom sent in its head-shaking yeomanry, blued in look and uniform,
with arguments against my scheme. Their central thrust was the minor
matter of ownership. Our adopted country or cottage belonged to a
Medway vicar, while the ‘discovery’ of marijuana also helped
break up our experiment. This was one smoke-filled, winter afternoon,
when the sky was a blossom pink (as I looked out and up, through a
weald of elms).

I told Zob my qualification was as a computer scientist,
though I have only a BSc, so in terms of the actuality that wasn’t
entirely untrue. I watched him on that final black, which he’d
failed to spot was equidistant from two corner pockets, making
predictable the white as it holed itself too. Lucky we didn’t bet,
eh, Marsy? Amazingly our second interview took place in a grimy café
not far from his snooker club, and for a third he sent me to see his
agent Cornelius.

Meanwhile Zob, in his political infighting in the
brutish world of publishing, shows us his weakness for public
accolades. He attempts, aided by his agent, to bribe his way into
winning that prize of all prizes. That prize Wye can dismiss as a
typically English parochial thing, but important internationally
(apparently). Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, when a new and even
more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it
seems certain Zob will win. Simms has friends as powerful as Zob’s,
and at the last moment is poised to snatch the prize from under Zob’s
nose. Wye describes him thus, in his diary entry of April the 20th:

He was – and didn’t blush to hear it – of gentle
birth. Throughout his boyhood he tinkered with a red Bugatti, which
even before he was licensed he drove direct to Vire. He drove
circuitously back, upsetting the gendarmerie. His first efforts in
creative writing were naturally quite brilliant, winning him a prize.
In researching his debut novel Simms wanted to know what was all the
fuss about in post-industrial Britain? He lacerated his yachting
pumps, which had cost hundreds. He fished out his striped rugby
socks, his school wars fondly remembered. Some dungarees he had
sprayed the Bugatti in served as principal garment, all enhanced
authentically by a few days minus shaving tackle. The hair, bleached
by a long weekend in Key Largo – where he was best man at an old
chum’s wedding – well, those strands would just have to grow
themselves out. So apparelled Simms set a course into the
disintegrating streets of his and your metropolis. North of Oxford
Street he sang – this was outside the Cambridge, with its
early-evening throngs, where people pressed coins into his open palm.
He moved on to the Blue Posts, offering a fabricated life story to
its drinkers, or, he corrected, its drinkers outside under parasols –
who urged him away with cash. For his nights he acquired a polythene
wrap, into which he mummified himself, mostly in a doorway off the
Strand. From that he graduated to a cardboard coffin in the precincts
of Charing Cross. So on for a long three months, where his street
life gave him – a realism actually lived through – the germ of
his ‘powerful’ first novel. For most the palm was already his,
that thing so close to Zob’s own heart.

Agent Cornelius, now faced with having to earn his
commission, devises a five-to-six-point plan as to the problem of a
dangerous rival.

1 A declaration of ‘war’
is inadvisable, as that could put you in a vulnerable light.

2 Conciliation is a best
first step, with a public laudation, such as ‘Welcome, colleague’.

3 Open camaraderie between
you and the new boy. By that we mean friendly, professional rivalry.
This is the surest way to undermine the Crouch link. [Geraldine
Crouch chairs the prize committee].

4 Remember! Crouch is a
raging suffragette, and as yet no one has sounded out Simms on that
score. Ideally he’ll be unsympathetic.

5 Finally Simms was born
with money, and is bound to get bored with work. If so you might lead
the rest of us in regretting his premature retirement.

PS 6 Have a party. Invite
Simms, and Crouch. And me!

Preparations for that party are finalised by Wye, who is
co-opted to serve as wine waiter. The invitation list is a ragbag of
important, opinionated arts correspondents, commentators, reviewing
hacks, book editors, journalists, devotees, and a low-budget
filmmaker with options on Zob’s novels. Wye navigates his way
through the gossip, the backstabbing, the career talk, the clash of
egos, and has finally had enough when Shayle, the filmmaker, a
dejected-looking man, regales those gathered around him with a tale
of professional woes. Wye describes it as follows, in his entry of
June the 25th:

The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my
salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down
the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped
ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar,
illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to
speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in
Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is
largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a TV production
house I have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I
said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers
and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:

Director circles that particular section of supremely
pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant
author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action.
There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above
which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal
cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are
not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian
cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for
gin, where only the lemon is genuine, and low-alcohol lager. None is
to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze,
and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and
there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this
means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly
troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over
budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where he
sees his great rival Anjou, and because the scriptwriter has no
grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his
opponent, first with a full house, then a straight flush, finally
four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story.
The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for
coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are recounted. Then they
are endlessly recounted. Here we arrive at the brink of an
accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps
the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver
surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled.
‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say.

Wye, utterly bored, and irked at officiating all night
as Zob’s wine waiter, retreats from centre stage once most of the
guests are drunk and past caring. With Snell’s assistant Merle, who
is in the process of forming a breakaway agency, and is instrumental
in bringing his diary to publication, Wye and two other guests decamp
to the laundry room for a game of cards. He sums that up as follows:

How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing
Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she
fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle.
Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped
my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed
to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the
buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women
and the Priesthood
. Here I cannot take issue – without, that
is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was
essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor
chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic
rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the
impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were
otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had
got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the
unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How
could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your
misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough,
therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate sprite! The smiling Wye could
find no right bid…

…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade
queens…a quartet of black twos…

…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes
by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a


The book plunges on through its rivalries, its artistic
and academic failures, its family feuds, through its master-slave
relationships, but does end on a bright note, when Wye is asked to
pen his conclusions. ‘Well now, let me think,’ he says. ‘In my
memoir of social decay, which has been after all the catalyst of
artistic regeneration, I shall start I suppose with a fatality. The
corpse, Glaze’s, is symbolic. Some time hence its transmogrified
mulch is the moving ground that the grandeur of a renascent
literature flourishes in. It shan’t be compacted – not by those
clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed
pages in.’ And abetted by Merle, off Wye goes to publish his diary.