Readability versus what? Instead of going round and round about “dumbing down”, has anyone posed that query in clear terms? Awards these days come dog-eared with controversies. Ironically, the ones upholding non-populist writing make it into page-turners with their cussed dismissal.
I have not read Julian Barnes, so when he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending it did not change my opinion, for I had none. However, I went scouring around. The debates have made me even look at his pictures closely to see if he does possess the daring nonchalance of the edgy writer who cares not for the raiment’s that will catapult him to the Top Ten lists. But then, wait. If he is supposed to be a rebel, then even the sanctity, not to speak of sanctimony, of a clique of aye-sayers ought to be an oddity. Mr. Barnes looks to be an interesting character, a bit dour, a bit of dry wit.
Unfortunately, one should hope a small titbit does not reveal too much. When writer Lucy Scholes met him during the celebratory party and congratulated him on a “well-deserved win”, she wrote that he “commended me my alliteration, smiling profusely all the while”. Was the smile out of politeness or does he really believe it is a worthy alliteration, when the phrase “well-deserved win” is used in ordinary reports on a regular basis? Since he was with a glass, would ‘wonderful wine’ be alliteratively good?
Ah, so much for the trivial. This is the purpose. To draw home the point that literature is not being qualified, but quantified. It is not about the merit of a piece of work, but what it is pitted against. It goes beyond competition because it becomes a matter of degree of likeability. Yes, however serious the work, the judges will rate it differently. Even if there are stringent yardsticks, no two people can have the same ones on all points.
The media mavens have already jumped in with their demeaning of the circus by setting up circuses of their own. Chairing the jury was Stella Rimington. She said, “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books. We wanted people to buy these books and read them. Not buy them and admire them.” That immediately brought about a kneejerk reaction of, “Why not Jeffrey Archer, then?” Judges should not be asked to justify, for they end up sounding bad. Another judge Susan Hill is supposed to have tweeted, “Hurrah! Man Booker judges accused of 'dumbing down'. They mean our shortlist is readable and enjoyable."
If you read a book, it has to be ‘readable’. Is that not a basic tenet? How does one explain enjoyment – the feeling of lightness or litheness? The sense of déjà vu? The empathy with the characters/plot? The sheer power of the words to transport you into that world? The remnants that stay with you when you recollect in the noise and the tranquillity? Or that it just “had to zip along” (in another judge’s words)? Unputdownability is reviled, when it should not necessarily be so. I have read Shakespeare at one go. Does it make it any less precious? I have struggled with some of the quick reads, not because I found them tiresome, but I had to mull over sentences and their role in the narrative. I too could have zipped along and praised the turbo-charged prose and been done with it. That is not the way it always works.
Salman Rushdie is a gratifying read at most times, and he has been Booker certified. There are metaphors and more in his work, but it is also a page-turner. Sometimes, incidentally, we turn the pages quickly because it does not have any sustaining interest. This is terrible for a work of fiction that carries you from the beginning to the middle and then to the end. You blink and you lose something. Or you must. Unlike soap operas, there are no recaps here.
This brings us to the issue of admiration. We admire nature, although we do not read it. And we can admire words that may not throttle us. The reassurance that something is “not difficult to read”, though, is not what one is looking for. As I said earlier, I find some racy books difficult to read.
Why are classical musicians making their work accessible? Why is art deconstructed is easy-to-understand steps? And how does a man posing as an installation, propping up some talismanic idea, become highbrow? Why does shit in a box become meaningful and that which is flushed down so much crap? It is our need to seek order, to justify and rectify the limitations that exist.
I liked what Claire Armitstead wrote in The Guardian about Barnes’ book: “But what it lacks in length it makes up for in depth of philosophical inquiry about memory and the shakiness of the personal identity formed by it. The main character, Tony Webster, will go down as one of literature's great unreliable narrators: a man whose belief in his own guilelessness can only be challenged by direct confrontation with his past, and then only partially, and for fleeting moments.”
The idea of an “unreliable narrator” is itself identifiable. You may see him from several angles and reach your own conclusions. It is pushing the boundaries of our thinking and imagination.
Since the squeaks continue, one might like to remind the opposition that there have been quite a few Booker winners who have written clearly populist books. Were they given the benefit of doubt because they brought an element of exotica into the narrative?
It is rather disconcerting that there is so much opposition that a rival award is being set up. The Literature Prize has its aim in place: to “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”. Excellent. In one year, there might be three or four books that could qualify. Why choose one over the other? Is something not being compromised here? How will the judges decide on novels “unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”? Even within the small group within academia, this is not possible. How can it be so with works of fiction where quality and ambition of the books may not follow a standard formula? It will be about the judges’ idea of these aspects. In the words of one supporter of this alternative Prize, “It is a sad day when even the Booker is afraid to be bookish.”
Oh dear. I am quite certain that Julian Barnes would be quite happy with the alliteration, if not the swipe. Now that he has joined the “posh bingo” gang, he would probably like to be at least less polite with his commendation of alliterations and other figures of speech. As for the Booker quaking at the thought of being bookish, perhaps we might like to see some stuff from the opposition that we can place on our shelves. For, I refuse to be spoonfed by the thought police.
(c) Farzana Versey