On Readability and Compulsion

It’s been a lively week in the book award world. Poor old Sam Jordison, who seems like the most pleasant and sanguine guy ever, almost loses his temper as the Guardian‘s light and playful Not the Booker award degenerates into politicised farce. There has also been a big row over the actual Booker prize. 

There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the Man Booker. It can promote MOR lit at the expense of real talent. It tends to be judged by timeservers and celebrities rather than writers and readers. And these judges can sometimes be precious and stupid to an incomprehensible degree. (Rabbi Julia Neuberger called James Kelman’s 1994 win a ‘disgrace… I am implacably opposed to the book. I feel outmanoeuvred.’ A working class writer walking away with the purse! Heaven forfend!)

But has the Booker, as this headline suggests, ‘betray[ed] authors and their readers?

To look at this year’s Man Booker you would not have expected controversy to arise. The shortlist was interesting with a few independent publishers thrown into the mix. The judges were mediocrities, but no more so than in previous years. In what seemed like a casual comment about the shortlist, Booker chair Dame Stella Rimington said she wanted people ‘to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.’ Another judge, the ex Labour backbencher Chris Mullin, mentioned that friends had told him to ‘pick something readable this year… That for me was such a big factor, it had to zip along.’

At that point, literary London exploded. In the Staggers, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson said that ‘I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of ‘readable’ to mean (essentially) ‘can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly’. The Observer‘s Alex Clark today condemns ‘the self-congratulatory philistinism of this year’s panel’, which ‘has done a disservice to the writers they selected, the writers they didn’t, and the readers who are thought to be so superficial that all you need to do is convince them that a book will ‘zip along’ faster than an episode of Downton.’ There has even been the announcement of an alternate prize, which would ‘establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’. Its board added that ‘For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.’ Critics and bloggers piled into the comments thread with heat and light on both sides.

The board’s spokesman is the literary agent Andrew Kidd from Aitken Alexander. It’s great to have more awards for writers. But there are two problems with Kidd’s thesis. One: that a serious literary novel cannot and should not be ‘readable’. Two: that readability is not artistic achievement in and of itself.

This is an important point. It is so much harder to write a good, coherent story than a ‘literary’ textual fog. When Clark and Robson talk of ‘readability’ they use the term in its dismissive prolefeed sense: Jordan autobios and Tom Clancy novels stacked like cans of baked beans in supermarkets and chain bookstores. This is a misreading and a narrowing of the term.

Readability is one of the hardest things to learn as a fiction writer, and difficult to define. It is the pace and flow of a story. It is that magical and mysterious thing that keeps a man up and immersed in a story past two in the morning, when he has to be up for a job interview at six. It is what Mark Twain called the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Stephen King writes that, when looking back over a first draft, ‘I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song?’

The song of coherence transcends the false separation we have erected between ‘literary’ and commercial fiction. I found The Kindly Ones, Underworld and Our Tragic Universe compulsive and have read these books more than once. This is not because I have particularly sophisticated tastes and intellect. It is because these ‘challenging’ writers have mastered the art of compulsion whereas many bestselling thrillers become boring and unreadable after only a few chapters. Three-dimensional characters, complex storytelling and beautiful prose will add to this compulsion. As my friend Serena Mackesy said: remember, kids, literary is just another genre.

The board of the New Literature Prize, then, has simplified not just the idea of ‘readability’ (and check those prissy quotemarks) but also that of artistic achievement as well. It has issued a mission statement that is entirely without meaning (I mean, you’re not against ‘excellence’, are you? ARE YOU?) and it has patronised the common reader.

Still, let’s give Kidd’s project a chance, as I said it’s always good to have more prizes for writers. But it might as well be called the Samuel Beckett Prize for Impenetrability and Obscurantism. Or the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.

Booker administrator Ion Trewin has hit back at the criticisms: ‘I think I have gone on record in the past as saying that I believe in literary excellence and readability—the two should go hand in hand.’ Does he understand how weird and wonderful the British litscene can be? All this mess, anger and fighting because someone has pointed out – the very idea! – that writers should be recognised for writing books that people might actually want to read.

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