Booker Prize: trusting the public would be novel

While literary types have arid debates about ‘readability’, the rest of us seem excluded from the conversation.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1969, promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.’ This, at least, is what the Booker Prize says about itself.

However, despite its grandiose self-description, the Booker Prize has never really been allowed to live up to its own hype. This is understandable. After all, what kind of prize for the ‘best book of the year’ arbitrarily excludes so many potential winners. Not written in English? You’re out. Not written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe? You’re out, too.

So, before you even start to moan about who has been picked to judge ‘the very best book of the year’, whether it’s Michael ‘SAS’ Portillo, or, as with this year, ex-UK spy chief Stella Rimmington, the whole enterprise is left looking more than a little absurd by its daft entrance criteria. Thankfully, this means that no one, deep down, ought to take its annual judgements all that seriously.

But commentators and critics increasingly find those judgements seriously problematic. And the reason for this, it seems, is that the Booker seems to be acting as a lightning rod for that very contemporary cultural anxiety known as ‘dumbing down’. So each year, around the time the Booker gong is handed out, Britain’s cultural elite indulges in a bit of internecine warfare. ‘Why have you included Mr Mass Market’s Generic Crime Fiction on the shortlist?’, ask the unabashed snobs. ‘The public actually enjoy Mr Mass Market’s work, which is more than can be said for Ms Experimental’s modernist prequel, Before We Went To The Lighthouse’, respond the wilfully ashamed snobs. ‘You’re dumbing down’, the snobs counter. ‘You’re elitist’, respond the inverted snobs. And repeat to fade.

This year’s Booker Prize is exceptional only for the vindictiveness of the encounter between the two warring factions. Right from the start, both sides seemed keen to get their jibes in early. So upon announcing the shortlist in September, Rimmington said ‘We want people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.’ Clearly excited by the idea of ‘readable’ books, fellow judge and ex-MP Chris Mullin cited a novel’s capacity to ‘zip along’ as a judging criteria. All of which was a car alarm to the ears of the snobs.

In fact, so repulsive was the racket generated by the Booker shortlist, that last week literary agent Andrew Kidd, supported by novelists such as John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon and David Mitchell, launched a corrective to the dumbing-down trend, the Not-The-Booker-Prize or, as it is officially known, the Literature Prize. ‘We liked the idea of a prize where excellence was the criteria’, explained Kidd in what sounded like a barely veiled dig at the prize that claims to ‘reward the very best’. Not to be outdone, Booker judge and novelist Susan Hill tweeted back (what, after all, is more dumbed down than Twitter): ‘Hurrah! Man Booker judges accused of “dumbing down”. They mean our shortlist is readable and enjoyable.’

The problem with this annual elitist-Punch and dumbed-down Judy show, is that both sides seem to have a rather strange, cut-off attitude to the so-called reading public. It’s just that where the one side wants to lower themselves to our supposed level, the other side would prefer to rise far above us. Hence, in defence of the Booker shortlist, Viv Groskop in the Telegraph writes: ‘The Booker is wise to give its seal of approval to books people will enjoy rather than simply admire from a distance.’ To which Kidd responds that ‘we’ want ‘at least a few impenetrable, dark, tricky novels on the shortlist… Basically the whole thing needs to be an utter snobfest, otherwise how is it different from the Costas?’

Clearly intent on attending the non-chain-sponsored snobfest, last week’s Observer leader writer even sounded a lament: ‘Maybe it says something about our culture that it has become strangely unfashionable to suggest that great novels shouldn’t only be a quick fix, another consumer experience, that they should make us work and reward us for our effort by staying with us, leaving a bit of intellectual and emotional residue.’

Maybe it does say something about ‘our culture’. But maybe the Observer’s complaint says more about its view of the consumerist mass, supposedly too distracted by easy-listening, easily bought stuff to concentrate on difficult syntax and experimental narrative. Whichever way you look at it, we are a pretty sorry bunch in this dispute, destined to be either ignored or patronised. Neither fate is particularly edifying.

But there is a middle way through this cultural squabble, one that is neither condescending nor snobbishly elevated. And that is to insist that there ought to be only one criteria when judging a novel, or indeed any other cultural product: excellence. It doesn’t matter if the fiction in question is recognisably realist or unrecognisably modernist, traditional or experimental, Balzac or Kafka – all that matters is the judgement of excellence.

Of course, those in the snobs’ court speak of ‘an uncompromising standard of excellence’, too. But they do so to mark themselves out from the thriller-reading crowd. This is why they are so obsessed with ‘difficulty’, as if writing without ‘perverted commas’, as James Joyce was to do, or simply dispensing with characters and plot, as Samuel Beckett subsequently did, is in itself an indication of value. Joyce and Beckett may be great, of course, but the difficulty of their work was a necessary means to their artistic objective, not the end itself.

For the snobs, however, difficulty does serve as an end itself; it serves as a rejection, as far as they’re concerned, of the mass market and the mass of consumers that constitute it. Too often, the snobs’ ‘standard of excellence’ functions as little more than a consumption-based mark of their own superiority, their own superior taste.

To really judge excellence, however, is the very opposite of snobbery. Instead, it involves a willingness to explain why something is to be valued, why it is great. And to do that involves a willingness to explain to other people why they, as people like you, ought to find a particular work excellent, too. In the proper process of judging, of justifying and arguing through your judgements, other people – the public – aren’t treated like some entity apart, to be pitied or pilloried. Rather, in the debate and argument over the excellence or otherwise of a piece of fiction, we the public are treated as equals, as people capable of understanding and agreeing or disagreeing with a judgement.

Beyond the tedious to-and-fro of the Booker snobs, whether inverse or proud, there is an approach to evaluating and judging works that neither dumbs down in front of us nor sequesters itself away from us.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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