The West is broke, the Middle East is in flames, the world is going to hell on a hire bike, but let’s get to what really matters — the Booker Prize, the winner of which was announced tonight (British time), at the usual glittering ceremony, which will become, in memory, for five out of the six finalists, the most bittersweet night of their life since adolescence. Everything about the Booker is bizarre, from its name — which fuses current sponsor the Man Group, with half of the original sponsor, Booker-McConnell* — to the ever-changing judges, to the degree of anguished debate it draws about the state of the culture, like some sort of magic, farmer-devised, cowsh-t magnet.

This year is no exception, with the judges being roundly condemned for dumbing down the prize to an unprecedented degree, four very conventional lit fic novels, one mildly postmodern exercise (The Sisters Brothers), and only one more challenging and demanding exercise, three times Booker bridesmaid Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending**. The attacks have been unprecedented in their bitterness, with the hilariously named commentator John Self noting that even the contributors to the prize’s forum, who usually plump for more “readable” titles, have been dismayed by the middlingness of this year’s list.

The attacks have been met with a concerted response by the judges, headed by Stella Rimington, ex-head of MI6 and writer of espionage potboilers, and staffed by ex-Labour minister Chris Mullin, and Woman in Black author Susan Hill. These is folks who don’t get pushed around, with Rimington declaring that she wanted people to “buy and read the books, not buy and admire them”, and Mullin saying he thought novels “had to zip along” to be included. In other words they judged the prize through their old professions — Rimington wanted anonymous operatives who would get the job done with no thought of glory, while Mullin wanted the trains of thought to run on time.

Thus, what’s most interesting about the prize is not the books selected, but the judges — non-literary people who select exactly the books you’d expect them to. With the exception of Hill, this year’s panel are all from a world outside that of serious and demanding fiction, poetry or criticism. Before considering whether that’s a good or bad thing, go back to the first award of 1968 and look at the panel — it included Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, and Rebecca West. The equivalent panel today might be, say, Seamus Heaney, Terry Eagleton and Margaret Atwood, and you can see how things have changed.

The argument is that the Booker has been, for some years, so laced into the highly integrated process of mass marketing — publishers buy space in Waterstone’s, the one remaining book chain, for selected titles, prizes move units, etc — that a slow but steady effort to squeeze out more challenging works has reached its apogee. Ion Trewin, the prize’s administrator somewhat confirmed that when he spoke of people becoming irritated because their “literary darlings” were not on the list. Was the choice of the most populist panel ever in any way connected with the fact that book selling is now in crisis, with sales volume on the slide?

That’s for the publishing industry to debate, when its principals can be talked back into the office from the eighth-floor ledge they retire to after looking at spreadsheets. What’s more striking is the fact that such a move was even possible, that a certain type of public middle-highbrow culture has become so emptied of real significance that that a panel wholly composed of non- and genre-novelists and writers could be seen as adequate to the process of judging. The absurdity of this is instantly visible if you compared it to something that still matters to people — popular music or sport, for example.

If the grand final were, say, umpired by Matt Preston, Helen Razer and the Bishop of Gippsland, everyone would know that something had gone wrong. They would have felt the same in 1968 if presented with 2011’s Booker panel. No one feels the same way in 2011, because the culture that sustained is gone, leaving only its external markings.

What was that culture? It was, for want of a better term, one ruled by the notion of “reflexive humanism” — that modernity posed a series of existential challenges to us, personal, ethical, political, and that the novel was not only a way of thinking those things out, it was a form that experimented with new ways of thinking about how that thinking might occur, i.e. not wild aleatoric experiment, but innovation in form produced and producing innovation in content. That is not only a manner by which the novel matters, it is, these days, the only way by which the novel matters.

For the first decades, the Booker was uncompromisingly committed to that. For the past 10 years, with judges’ panels mixed between lit figures and ring-ins, it has hovered uncertainly around it. This year’s exercise is either a one-year dip into bathos, not to be repeated, or a sign that the process of cultural collapse from within — caused, in part, by the process by which the prize has been transformed into an adjunct of the market — has been completed. People such as Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander Associates seem to think so — he’s setting up a thing called The Literature Prize to restore a contest for unashamedly challenging works.

But of course that very means of conserving aspects of the culture is also an admission that it no longer commands the field — even the rather limited, and class-defined, one that the reflexive humanism of modernity once commanded. Writing and filing before the decision is announced, I can say that should there be any remnant of that culture remaining, Julian Barnes will win — but given the panel’s anti-intellectualism, its very post-Thatcher, new-Labour sense that the old ruling culture (which can admittedly be pretty suffocating in Britain) has to be put in its place, I suspect they will go for either the white guy voicing a 12-year-old Ghanaian (Pigeon English), the picaresque sub-petercareyesque (Jamrach’s Menagerie), the Moscow nihilist programmer (Snowdrops) or the jazz-players-in-Nazi Germany thing (Half Blood Blues), which is sorta All That I Am meets Smacka Fitzgibbon. So having said all that the winner of course will be The Sisters Brothers.

STOP PRESS: and the winner is… Julian Barnes. On the “readability” controversy, Rimington said quality had always been just as important:

“It is a very readable book, if I may use that word, but readable not only once but twice and even three times,” she said. “It is incredibly concentrated. Crammed into this short space is a great deal of information which you don’t get out of a first read.”

Barnes said the “readability” row had been “a false hare” to which he had paid little attention, adding: “Most great books are readable. Any shortlist of the last ten years that I’ve read has contained nothing but what you would call readable books.”

* they decided not to call it the Man Prize, for fear it would be confused with the Miles Franklin Award.