The zip-along factor

It has often been said that I tend to start many of my posts with the words “It has often been said”. Or something equivalent. And that, further, without citing any evidence, I create a straw man which I then go on to dismantle with great relish. I plead guilty to not citing evidence, and I plead lack of time as a mitigating factor: when posts are written in the few free odd minutes I can find in the midst of everything else, researching and cross-referencing do, I confess, generally take a back seat. However, I do insist that those words “it has often been said…” introduce things that I have frequently heard said, or, more often, have seen written on various discussion boards and blogging sites around the internet.

Now that’s over with, let’s start this post properly. Take two.

It has often been said …

No, really, this has been said. And here’s a link to prove it. Stella Rimington, chairman of judges of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious prize honouring English language fiction written in Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, actually has said the following about the latest shortlist:

We all thought we wanted to find books that all over the country, all over the world, people would read and enjoy. We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are very readable books … We wanted people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.

Fellow judge, MP Chris Mullen, explained the sort of quality he was looking for:

Other 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.

He added further that the judges did not want to pick books that “stay on the shelves half-read”.

The first question that occurs to me is what people such as Chris Mullen, a Member of Parliament, or Stella Rimington, a former spy, are doing in the first place on a judging panel of a prestigious literary award. Neither is a literary academic, nor a literary journalist, and neither is famous primarily for their writing. Yes, they’ve both written a few novels on the side, although how distinguished these novels are – whether or not they “zip along” as they should – I am, I am sorry to say, in no position to judge. But in neither case is there anything to indicate that their literary judgement, whatever it may happen to be, should carry more weight than anyone else’s literary judgement.

But then again, former panels have included the likes of failed politician Michael Portillo (who, like Stella Rimington this year, had actually been chairman of the judging panel), television presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli, actresses Imogen Stubbs and Joanna Lumley, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, etc.etc.  – people who arguably are even less qualified to judge a literary prize than are Mullen or Rimington. Of course, these people may be very well read for all I know, and may have impeccable literary taste and judgement, but there’s no shortage of people who are well-read: I am not too badly read myself, if it comes to that. The reason these people are selected for the panel is merely that they are celebrities – well-known names who would attract some publicity for the prize. And also because, as everyone knows nowadays, opinion is all that really matters when it comes to the arts, and anyone’s opinion carries as much weight as anyone else’s. It must be true: “it has often been said…”

It’s not that the Man Booker Prize is something I can get too worked up about. The few winners I have read have not particularly impressed me, and the books nominated for the prize – and even the book winning the prize – are generally not of any great interest to me. That is not to say that they are necessarily bad books as such: on the contrary, I am sure that many of the winners or short-listed books are very good indeed. But based on my past reading experience, merely the fact of winning or of being short-listed does not, in itself, indicate to me any particular likelihood of literary merit. After all, the book that won the Booker of Booker award a few years ago, a novel acclaimed almost universally by the modern literary world as a great masterpiece, as an instant classic, struck me as merely vapid and meretricious, so who am I to judge on these matters? Or even, for that matter, to pass my opinion? There is far too much of modern fiction that I have read that I have been assured are masterpieces, but which have frankly bored me. I don’t want to make too much of this: let us just say I am not particularly in sympathy with contemporary literary fiction, and leave it at that. And, this being so, who gets short-listed for the Man Booker prize, or who wins it, is, I generally find, of little interest to me. So for all I care, they can rope in as many television personalities and former spies and celebrity chefs as they wish. But what has struck me this year are the stated criteria of two of the judges this year, including the chairman: the winner this year must be “enjoyable” and “readable”; it must “zip along”. These, indeed, have been said.

Let’s refrain from mocking: it’s easy to mock. Let us try to consider as dispassionately as we can these criteria. I have no objection to books that “zip along”. Indeed, many of my favourite books, from Voltaire’s Candide to Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely zip along very nicely. But is zipalongability really a criterion of literary quality? Why should it be? Surely, any novel should unfold at a tempo that is right for that novel. The right tempo for Farewell, My Lovely is fast, and the right tempo for The Magic Mountain is slow. One cannot be prescriptive about such matters.

I’m sorry – I’m stating the bleeding obvious, aren’t I? It has often been said … where was I? Ah yes … it has often been said that I spend too much time in my posts stating the bleeding obvious. But I do confess to finding it hard to argue against the Booker Prize judge Chris Zipalong Mullen MP without stating the obvious.

And as for Stella Rimington’s criterion of “readability”, that is yet another term that should be placed, I think, in the Dictionary of Oft-Used Critical Terms that Mean Nothing. What does it mean to be “readable”? Unless something is written in a language I don’t understand, it’s readable, in the sense that I can, at least, read it (if not necessarily understand it). What is usually meant by “readable” is that it is easy to read, and once again, I’m struggling to see why that should necessarily be considered a literary quality. Any criterion that rules out works such as The Golden Bowl or Ulysses does not strike me as a particularly useful criterion in this context.

And in any case, is “easy to read” necessarily the same as “readable”? After all, Dan Brown is easy to read: a very limited vocabulary and very simple sentence structure hardly indicate any degree of difficulty. And yet, to judge from the odd passage I have tried reading in bookshops, I find his works utterly unreadable: within a sentence or two, my attention starts to wander. The Golden Bowl or Ulysses are, paradoxically, more “readable” than The da Vinci Code. They are more readable despite being more difficult: unlike the prose of Dan Brown and co, the prose of a Henry James or a James Joyce engages the reader’s attention. Or my attention, at least. And writing that engages my attention does strike me as more “readable” than writing that doesn’t.

But I doubt this is what is usually meant by “readable”. In popular usage, “readable” means no more than “easy to read”. I know. It has often been said.

But it doesn’t really matter, I suppose: my views on the matter will mean as little to the Booker Prize judges as the Booker Prize judges’ verdict will mean to me. This year, Julian Barnes appears to be the bookies’ favourite to win the prize. I have read a couple of his novels, and have been reasonably well impressed: he is a good writer who takes serious literature seriously. But if he does win, I wonder how he will feel being feted by people whose idea of quality literature are books that are easy to read, and which “zip along”.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on September 18, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    It’s not the dismantling of the straw man that I object to but the burning with associated human and animal sacrifice..
    You could always try “Its a truth universally acknowledged, or “we hold these truths to be self-evident” for variety.
    But seriously, have you considered instituting an ‘old git prize’ for literature? The downside is that you are going to have to wade through some contemporary writing rather than jewels of the literary ‘canon’ that have survived the filter of history for you.
    However, some of us think that a lack of criticism is the death of art, and also think that recent writing could benefit from your critical mind. So, why not set yourself the penance of reading one new work every two months and award your prize at the end of the year. Some of us could help by sticking our necks out and suggesting things worth a look – a sort of pre-filter – if you trust us.

    Reply

    • Human and animal sacrifice? You’ve been reading too much Dennis Wheatley, Alan!

      I do read some contemporary novels from time to time: I am certainly not dismissing contemporary literature wholesale – that would be foolish. And neither do I dismiss recommendations from friends: it was on your recommendation, after all, that I started reading the Flashman novels, and now I am a big fan. As you know, I am reading a John le Carré novel right now (it was published in the mid 1980s, and that counts as contemporary for me!), and I am enjoying it immensely. I am, however, quite a slow reader, and reading books I don’t enjoy is irksome as it diminishes the reading time available for books I do want to read. So naturally, when deciding what to read next, I have to figure out as best I can which books I am most likely to enjoy. And inevitably, my past experience with various sorts of books plays a major part in deciding what to read next. As it does with anyone, I imagine.

      However, yes, I’ll take up your suggestion and read more contemporary works. As a “penance”, as you put it. But they must zip along. I’m not reading them otherwise.

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on September 18, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    …the prize, would, of course, have little or no monetary value…

    Reply

  3. I do not care – frankly with a nod to Mr Rhett Butler – I do not give a damn – how your posts begin – I am too keen on getting to see them, finding them very thought provoking

    quote “readable”. In popular usage, “readable” means no more than “easy to read”. I know. It has often been said.unquote …. that makes the post for me.

    Right after an argument along those lines I find your post that illustrates the problem I am having with some friends.
    I say that nothing worth achieving (or reading) ever came easy – substantially I believe you are saying much the same – if I want an easy read – I am back to Harry Potter – but so many books worth reading are of a necessity the kind of books that make you wash your hands and comb your hair first, and set up straight – I have a slight leaning occasionally to Horror Fiction – but it must be written so it holds the readers attention.If an Author has written a fine book with a story that moves or disturbs his reader, I find it worthwhile showing respect, there must be subtlety in it violence if any must be originally written and not the mindless sort that is found in “pulp fiction” – plenty of action – not the long “talky-talky” stuff exhibited by so much of 19th Century Fiction – the kind written in the first person by a know-it-all Author.
    If I am reading a book I want to see the building of it’s story – right there in my hands as I turn the pages. Sometimes looking forward and sometimes dreading what will be “happening next”
    The best ending I ever read was by Alan Garner – in the Weirdstone of Brisingamen there was a building up of a great deal of tension – due to the pursuit of the children involved and a magikal attack during which “there were sights best left unseen and sounds best left unheard” – taking place in a demonic black cloud.
    Then the DLF – dear little friend (Fenodyree the Dwarf) announced I believe, to all and sundry “this has been the Tale of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – now here’s an END of it”
    By then – I am feeling absolutely drained – I enjoyed that book – but the end has come and I was half relieved and half upset – I was enjoying that !!!!

    Reply

    • Hello Patricia, Well – if you’re going to say such flattering things about my posts, how could I possibly disagree? 🙂

      This post is partly a consequence of a conversation I had with a friend last Friday night, who accused me of setting up strawmen to dismantle without providing any evidence that the opinions I was attacking were widely held. Guilty as charged, m’lud!

      I think I agree with you that anything with any depth in it requires some sort of effort. When I speak of something having “dept”, I am, of course, speaking metaphorically: I mean that much of the substance of such works lies underneath the metaphorical substance – i.e. that they aren’t always apparent at first glance. Sometimes, such works may give the appearance of being straight-forward, but these appearances can be deceptive.

      Of course, I am not insisting that a work must have depth: like yourself, I have a leaning towards certain types of horror fiction, but, much though I enjoy Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the ghost stories of an MR James or an Algernon Blackwood, I am certainly not claiming that these works have any depth, but I enjoy them anyway.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Carolyn Deverson on September 19, 2011 at 4:53 am

    I think you might be being a little unfair on the judges here, Himadri. There has been a lot of criticism of the Man Booker prize being too esoteric and weird over the years, and they are probably responding to that. There’s nothing wrong with readability and someone who likes Dickens and Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse shouldn’t be condemning it too strongly. I suppose it would be a shame if the judges were so determined to find this that they overlooked something that used language more oddly but was still excellent.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • I don’t think I am condemning readability at all. Indeed, I make a point of saying that many of my favourite books “zip along”, and are, indeed, very readable. I do, however, think it absurd that the judges of a pretigious literary award should specifically look for this quality. I am also questioning what precisely is meant by the term “readability”, since, in my book at least, Henry James is far more “readable” than is Dan Brown.

      Reply

      • Posted by Carolyn Deverson on September 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm

        Well, I haven’t read Dan Brown and won’t be, but he’d need to be very unreadable indeed to be more unreadable than Henry James!

      • Henry James’ prose is, of course, difficult – especially his late prose – and for this reason, he is often labelled “unreadable”. But it captures my attention. Dan Brown’s prose, on the other hand, is very simple, and for that reason, is considered very readable, but whenever I have sampled his stuff while bookshop-browsing, I have found his prose so devoid of anything to capture my interest, so childish and simple-minded, that I found it hard to focus. So, contrary to what appears to be popular perception, it is Dan Brown whom I find unreadable, not Henry James. My point is that a term such as “readability” cannot be universally applied, as what it means may vary from reader to reader.

  5. I may be in need of moderating my judgement here – I understand Carol’s point – will think about it – indeed she makes a good popint here

    Reply

  6. Carolyn’s point – I correct myself

    Reply

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