Past the buffet

September 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm Leave a comment

The task for the judges of the Man Booker Prize is to find “the best book of the year” – but what does ‘the best’ mean, literally? Well, it seems clear that this year’s judges were on a mission…

People said to me when they heard I was in the judging panel, ‘I hope you pick something readable this year’ […] That for me was such a big factor, it had to zip along.

That was Chris Mullin’s mission statement. It reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

On the announcement of the shortlist, the chair of the judges Dame Stella Rimington said: “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are very readable books” and previously, when the longlist was announced, she said it contained “books people would read and enjoy reading.”

Yes, but what sort of people? Judging by the leaning towards political themes and the lack of humour, perhaps the sort that listen to Radio 4 all day, only switching it off for half an hour when a comedy show is broadcast.

In Ali Smith’s There but for the a character on a train surveys what his fellow passengers are reading:

“A girl reading Women in Love. A Man reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – still (!!). A woman reading Death in Venice. A woman reading Heat and Dust. A man reading The White Hotel. A young man, very good looking, reading a novelization of Chariots of Fire. A girl, looks like a student, reading Slaughterhouse 5. Now he’s past the buffet, now he’s through first class, where nobody is reading anything but the Daily Telegraph (!).”

If Ali Smith will forgive me for concocting a new euphemism from her words, I suspect some of this year’s judges are past the buffet. They didn’t want books that would sit unfinished on the shelf, so they have chosen books that will be left behind on the train instead. Maybe some of them don’t see any real value in novels unless they are based on real events. Maybe to them fiction is just story-telling and therefore unimportant compared to the news in their broadsheets. Maybe the snobby elitists who think otherwise needed taking down a peg or two. Maybe I’m being unfair, but then maybe they have been unfair to some excellent novelists by implying that their books are less good than some quite ordinary ones by mere rookies.

Snowdrops, for example, is a perfectly good debut novel, but why on earth it is in the running for a literary prize? It is the sort of book one might buy in WH Smith. That said, it does zip along and it involves Russia. As Kevin from Canada says “you can only conclude that this was a jury whose members simply don’t read very much.

I do quite like all of the shortlisted books, but there is no great literature there, and better books have been ignored. I don’t think there is any criteria by which Half Blood Blues isn’t bettered by Chinaman, for example. Also, since one thing that several of the jury’s preferred books have in common is the theme of being betrayed – either by people or by one’s own memory – I imagine that, years from now, each of the judges will blame the others for the inexplicable absence of At Last by Edward St Aubyn.

They have achieved their objective though, it is a very readable, book club friendly, list – to the disgust of many Booker aficionados. It is a nice list. Such a nice list that I’m surprised only one of them (Jamrach’s Menagerie) has been chosen for Richard and Judy’s book club. Maybe the others weren’t good enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a bit of accessibility. I’m no elitist. I went to a comprehensive school, the name of which I still have trouble spelling. I dislike authors writing purple prose full of highfaluting references aimed above the heads of the vulgar rabble, and I like a good plot as much as the next man. (Unless, that is, the next man is Lee Monks who called the shortlist “a deplorably story-driven selection.“) And, yes, I’m perfectly well aware of how snobby some of the things I’ve said here sound, but if you didn’t laugh at the WH Smith line then, like the shortlist, you are short on humour. However, we do have a right, and are right, to expect something more challenging from the Booker Prize, something more original.

Yes, ideally the books chosen should be ‘readable’ by the average reader, but that does not mean anything difficult should be tossed aside. Nor should books be passed over for other, non-literary, reasons – such as personal feuds, or prejudice. Sadly that is not always the case.

In a barely coded attack on one particular judge in The Guardian, Paul Bailey has pointed out that as well as Alan Hollinghurst’s omission from the shortlist, accomplished novels by other gay writers were also absent. He mentions Ali Smith (There but for the) and Philip Hensher (King of the Badgers), others will point to Adam Mars-Jones (Cedilla) and Paul Bailey himself (Chapman’s Odyssey is still my favourite book of the year). Obviously, an author’s sexuality should be totally irrelevant, but there are suspicions floating around that at least one judge has previously had ‘issues’ in that respect. Although I suspect that the “bossyboots” judge he alludes to is unlikely to be concerned by Bailey’s broadside because, after all, it is in The Guardian, and why would anyone ever take any notice of The Guardian on anything whatsoever?

So what will they choose as their winner? Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize, has said that “a third reading in the space of months is tough on any novel, particularly those that are plot driven. When from the first reading you learn the denouement it becomes essential at subsequent readings that other ingredients come into play: the quality of writing, of dialogue, of characterisation.
I wish the judges the best of luck with that.

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