The Booker and ‘readability’ and similar imbecilities

I really, really meant to ignore the Man Booker prize this year. But then people said stupid things, and other people said stupid things, and I was this guy and it was unavoidable. I ended up writing a short piece on the particular stupid things around this year’s award for last week’s Sunday Guardian.

(On rereading I do feel I was harsher on Sense of an Ending than I really feel: I enjoyed it, if I thought less of it than some of his previous work.)

 

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This is one of those great and obvious universal truths: the Man Booker prize never satisfies everyone.

The point at which it all began to go downhill this year was at the announcing of the shortlist. This was not because the books selected were shockingly inferior – at this point very few had read all of those chosen anyway – but for external reasons. One was widespread surprise that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child had been left out. Hollinghurst is a previous Booker winner,and was among the favourites for this year. But there are always surprising omissions from the shortlist (I was deeply annoyed last year when Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies failed to make it) and needn’t have been any reflection on the judges or the books that did get shortlisted. Julian Barnes, who had been been shortlisted thrice before, was the only ‘expected’ name to make it onto the list. Barnes’ Sense Of An Ending would be the eventual winner.

Unfortunately, the judges chose to come out and explain their criteria for selecting the books. Dame Stella Rimington, the head of the panel, claimed that she wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”– implying that this (being bought and not read) was the usual fate of Booker-shortlisted books. Her fellow judge Chris Mullin claimed that a major factor for him was that the book should “zip along”.

The furore around these comments shifted the debate entirely. It is obvious that the ability to “zip along” is not the primary factor for which the Booker judges should be looking– or if it is, perhaps we should see about getting our Mr Bhagat a nomination next year*. Literariness is an intangible quality, and one that is hard to defend against the more easily counted factors of sales and popularity, but the very existence of literary prizes rests upon the assumption that some books are better written than others. The question of “readability” is a strange one. Even ignoring the silliness of the term – most books can be read – the Booker hardly has a history of promoting difficult experimental fiction.

In all of this discussion, the books themselves seemed to be forgotten. There were plenty of mutterings about the quality of the shortlist, but very little about the actual books on it. The author Philip Hensher described the list as “disappointing” and the result of a deliberate shift towards the more popular, but did not elaborate on which books were unworthy, or why. Soon after the shortlist had been released a new literary award (The Literature Prize) was announced, backed by John Banville and David Mitchell among others. The launch statement hit out directly at the older prize, claiming that there was a place for this new award since the Booker “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement”.

What emerged from all this was a vague sense that this year’s list of shortlisted books was subpar, the result of populist judges; yet apart from some discontent over AD Miller’s Snowdrops (and there is always at least one book on a shortlist that most people feel doesn’t belong there) there was a near complete lack of criticism that called out specific books and asserted that they did not deserve to be there. It can’t have been much fun for the authors – any winner other than Barnes would be dogged by the assumption that this year’s prize had been all wrong anyway.

Oddly enough, of the shortlisted books I read (there were two in which I had no particular interest) Barnes’ was the one that seemed to “zip along” the most. It took much more time and effort to read Patrick DeWitt’s deceptively simple The Sisters Brothers, which was my own choice for the award. It contains elements of the Western (straying close to genre fiction and the sort of horrifying populism critics of this year’s shortlist are so upset by). But it’s also a fantastically clever piece of absurdist fiction (the Western as written by Samuel Beckett?) and in many ways veers closer to the sort of high-brow experimental fiction in which the Booker rarely displays an interest.

The Man Booker prize is often considered the literary award of a genre too easily stereotyped as middle-aged men navel gazing. It’s an unfair categorisation on the whole, and it’s only slightly ironic that Barnes book is about a middle-aged man reflecting upon his past. Having provided such an unusual shortlist this year’s judges could have treated this as a way of opening up the award. Instead, they chose to paint themselves into a corner. Barnes is a great writer, even if this is one of his lesser works. It’s a pity that in the year in which he finally won the award things should have gone this way.

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 *Though is he readable? Many people seem to find him so, at least.

 

 

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