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”.