where the writers are
Barnes and Noble

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

Comments
15 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Plots

Farzana,

I read in the net some critic said about the story as nothing happens.  It reminded me of "Izu Dancers" by Kawabata Yasunari or "Forever Bluish Blue" by Murakami Ryu.  Both stories have no plots, so the stories are like a transition.  Kawabata won a Nobel Prize, and in the video I watched his friends and critics asked if he thought about plots for the story.  The video was created after the announcement of his Nobel Prize.  I guess Western critics noticed Izu Dancers did not contain plots.  He replied to his friends and critics no.  He didn't think of plots, so the story does not have a plot.  But it has vivid images and most Japanese love that story.  It has been a well known story, so I read it when I was young.  Murakami Ryu's story won a prestigious domestic award also, so I read it, probably 30 years ago or so.  It is written as though the narrator is under drug.  Decadent drug scenes were controversial, therefore the story offered a fresh subject to the Japanese literary society, I think.  

In the U.S., when we take creative writing classes, we all learn that we need some kind of plots.  Plots are very important and needed, period.   But some stories work without plots.  I can't count, but probably Japanese have more such stories.  Then, I thought about The Sense of an Ending although I haven't read it.  If nothing happens in the story, then the title itself suggests its plot.  What do you think?  Isn't that clever?  But still, the idea is based on plots are needed.  That is a stubborn western idea on what to do in creative writing.

 

Comment Bubble Tip

Un-plots

Keiko:

These are important thoughts, and as always you have tried to make a valuable comparison. There is a constant emphasis on plot because, I guess, in certain parts of the world that kind of 'order' is more important. Those cultures where the at of story-telling has been largely oral, you will see that they manage well without defined plots. 

I think stories are also about what is not defined. When I talk of a beginning, a middle and an end, it does not eman a chronological set of happenings or events. It could be a back and forth or ideas, of dreams, of delusions. 

I do think some writers in the West have experimented, by way of diary-style writing or vignettes. I would especially mention American playwrights. There is a lot happening without an event in, say, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' or 'The Zoo Story', and then you have the stream of consciousness writing. 

You ask:

"If nothing happens in the story, then the title itself suggests its plot.  What do you think?  Isn't that clever?  But still, the idea is based on plots are needed.  That is a stubborn western idea on what to do in creative writing."

I have never taken a course in writing and I am stubborn about that! I think nothing happenign is a misnomer because the state of suspension is a happenign in its own way. 

PS: Regarding mis-spelling 'plot' as 'prot' in the original comment (and I am mentioning it because you have etained the clarifcation comment) made me smile. I got it, of course, and thought it was a typo. The idea is communication. 

Our of curiosity I did check. Prot is abbreviation for Protestant; it can also be for 'prototype'. So, we are learnign along the way as we mis-spell.mis-type. 

~F

 

Comment Bubble Tip

Plots, not prots

I'm sorry for all the misspellings in my last comment.  That proved to me that I would never truly master the difference between L and R in my life. 

Comment Bubble Tip

Pardon?

I'm sorry for all the misspellings in my last comment.

 Greetings, Keiko. I read the "comment" you referred to, but saw NO misspellings.

Did you go back and correct them?

How's your mother's story coming? Is it finished?

Comment Bubble Tip

corrected

Dolores,

Yes, it is corrected, but I left it for a whole day, so I wanted to mention it.  Some readers don't know my peculiar idiosyncratic tendency in wriitng.

About the story, I'll let you know when it is finished, of course!  

Comment Bubble Tip

Oral tradition

Farzana,

About oral tradition, I wonder if story tellers can remember better if stories have minimum of plots.  If nothing happens, it’s difficult to remember a story, don’t you think?  When I had to recap such stories to someone in the past, I had difficulty. 

The other day I was speaking with a friend of mine about no-plot stories, and she mentioned about Sasameyuki (Makino Sisters) by Tanizaki Junichiro as such no plots story.  That’s true.  The story describes daily happenings of the family members.  The idea Tanizaki had for the story was based on Genji Monogatari.  He is one of few modern translators of Genji Monogatari.  I guess he tried to follow Murasaki Shikibu’s technique for his story.  Also, I think he was writing Sasameyuki to the newspaper with weekly deadline.  So I think the story depended on the natural state of suspension as you mentioned.  I like that phrase.  Also, many years ago, I used to watch French movies without very little or no plot.

About prot, I found nothing in my digital Oxford dictionary.  Thank you for the information.  I learned something.

Comment Bubble Tip

Good point

Keiko:

You say:

"If nothing happens, it’s difficult to remember a story, don’t you think?"

Indeed. That is probably the reason that the idea of interpretations came in, especially with regards to 'holy' books and mythology. My point was about the genesis of contemporray non-plot stories relying on the oral tradition. They may not be easily related if nothing happens, or the teller of such stories could add her/his own inputs. It could also not have a traditional pattern. Like going into flashback...

I think the non-plots work particularly well in short stories. 

As a French film buff, I can see understand reference. The nouvelle vague movement in many countries spawned such cinema, and many of us watching our films without ctoties wondered why nothing was happening and the shot just continued, panning, fade in, fade out! It was the exposure to some fine world cinema that put things in place. Incidentally, if you have not already, there is some brilliant work  by Iranian film-makers - even if there is a story, it is minimalistic. 

~F

Comment Bubble Tip

Foreign Films

Farzana,

Years ago, my daughter recommended me Iranian and Indian movies, and we used to go to one video shop that carried many foreign films.  I enjoyed all I watched.   But I haven't seen any in recent years.  Please let me know if you have some recommendation.

Comment Bubble Tip

Keiko: Here are a few without

Keiko:

Here are a few without any thought:

Iranian

Children of Heaven, Baran...try anything by Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami.

Indian

I am confused about the genres, so again a limited list:

Dhobi Ghat, Rajneeti, Ishqiya, Maqbool (based on Macbeth, but adapted to the Mumbai underworld marvellously), Saat Khoon Maaf, Dor, Dil Se, Mammo (since you've read my book this one will make some sense)....I can go one and will get a more comprehensive list later. 

~F

Comment Bubble Tip

the list

Thank you, Farzana.  I let my daughter know about this list, too.

Comment Bubble Tip

Well, Keiko, as I said, it

Well, Keiko, as I said, it was a spontaneous list. There is a good deal of new wave cinema, and some outstanding directors in many languages. 

This link might be of some help:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_Cinema

Happy browsing!

~F

Comment Bubble Tip

Thank you, Farzana.  That's a

Thank you, Farzana.  That's a lot of information.  I appreciate it.  I sent my daghtter the link, but she said she has seen a bunch of movies made by Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian. She recommended him, too. 

 

 

Comment Bubble Tip

Keiko: Yes, too much

Keiko:

Yes, too much information and where does one begin? You are welcome and hope you enjoy some of the films. 

~F

PS: Regarding an earlier comment where you talked about mis-spelling and typos, I just looked at one of my long comments and saw a whole lot of typos. Sorry, but I just type and rarely look back. 

Comment Bubble Tip

I just read The Sense of an

I just read The Sense of an Ending and loved it ~ f - it is truly a gem of a book and have passed it on to my son and H awaits it with baited breath. mx

Comment Bubble Tip

M, great! It just makes the

M, great! It just makes the subject of this piece more real when it is seen from the inside, so to speak. Thanks for letting us know. 

~F