Boyd Tonkin: Let's zip up the unreadable trash

The week in books

No one has (yet) remarked on the paradox of this year's Man Booker victor. A panel of judges which had promoted "readability" and accessibility picked a book that borrows its title from a somewhat abstruse work of literary theory. In 1967, Frank Kermode's original The Sense of an Ending reflected on the arc of the story and the arc of existence, tapping into the notion of apocalypse in Western literature from Plato to Beckett. Julian Barnes's winning book does, I suspect, deploy some of Kermode's insights into the imperfect closure and completion of narratives and lives. But to name a novel after an arcane exercise in litcrit – just how "elitist" can a writer get?

The "readability" test has plunged Dame Stella Rimington - as the chair who most vigorously thumped the populist drum - into a war of words. It may, in time, help to renovate the prize. But I never knew that an intelligence professional who had spent 28 years in the security service, with four as Director-General of MI5, could be quite so thin-skinned. If Dame Stella's nuclear riposte to a handful of sarky comment pieces about her shortlist by literary journalists is any guide, Thames House under her stewardship must have trembled on the brink of apocalypse day by day. We can only surmise that her demand for universal "readability" did not apply to signals traffic.

Barnes's compact, tight and close-grained novel proves the key point better than any polemic. Its elegance and lucidity (readability, if you like) in no way corresponds to a shirking of nuance and complexity. Quite the contrary: from Chekhov and Kafka to Borges and Beckett, the subtlest of modern classics often employ the simplest of means.

When I helped to judge the Booker, it went to JM Coetzee's Disgrace: a fluently readable novel, with absolutely no obscurity of language or opacity of form. Yet (to use the kind of idiom Coetzee never would) it nonetheless does your head in – as all great fiction should. This openness to any reader who approaches a novel in good faith stands apart from the far more questionable yardstick proposed by another judge, Chris Mullin – the retired MP whom I will now forever think of as Zipalong Cassidy.

However transparent its technique, much outstanding fiction doesn't speed you up. It slows you down. You stop in your tracks; pause, backtrack, take stock, re-think. Barnes's The Sense of an Ending does exactly that as its dénouement nears. "Zipping along" is for zips. Even such a voluminous page-turner as Haruki Murakami will, at pivotal moments, bring you up short and root you to the spot.

Perhaps another tiny dose of theory might be in order here. In his books S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes erected a distinction between the lisible and scriptible literary work. The usual translation is "readerly" and "writerly": Barthes sought to draw a line between the books we passively consume and those we actively produce, joining the author in a quest for meaning rather than lying back and gulping down a ready-made commodity. I hadn't thought about this patch of Barthes for years but – oddly – Dame Stella sent me back to it. As always with Barthes, the innate subjectivity of his concepts blurs their edges, but some such dichotomy makes sense.

I would add one proviso. With rare exceptions, the finest "literary" novelists write limpid and approachable prose. Curiously – and this fact seems well-nigh unmentionable in publishing circles – too many "popular" bestsellers don't. I need only utter the words "Dan Brown" to make the case.

Faulty grammar, tangled syntax, undigested information, clichés that confuse, redundant fillers, pointless ambiguities: an awful lot of mass-market fiction is actually more obscure and difficult to read than the "challenging" type.

Of course, genre writing boasts its own canon of classics, and anyone who treads the path of a Simenon, a Wodehouse or a Chandler belongs in the great tradition, however you define it. Many heavy-sellers don't. And their bafflingly bad prose often heads the charts. Might we lay off those poor "literary" scribes for a bit, and have a proper quarrel about that?

Library law: not open-and-shut

Since last Thursday, library campaigners have tried to halt Brent Council's licensed pillage by mounting daily vigils outside the branches that the Town Hall vandals plan to shut and strip. But the law, which turned against the protestors when a judicial review of library closures last week found in favour of Brent, still holds out hope. They have leave to appeal the judgment authorising the closures; it will be heard in early November. This swift re-match suggests that at least someone at the High Court values local libraries. In the meantime, the campaign has gained an injunction preventing the council from further action to wreck the suspended branches.

Who pays the price for prizes?

At the Guildhall dinner, we learned that the Man Group has signed up for ten more years of Booker sponsorship. That's a spectacular pledge from the hedge-fund giant, given the state of the economy. It slaps a glove across the infant face of the new "Literature Prize", advertising a long-term level of support any newcomer will struggle to match. As chairman Jon Aisbitt made clear, the Man Booker makes up one part of his firm's commitment to reading and writing. Other projects aim to raise literacy standards for both children and adults. "Reading," Aisbitt said, "sits at the heart of social justice." So it does. But do hedge funds, whose pursuit of "absolute returns" compels them to act as amoral (I didn't say "immoral") agents in the markets? I offer no glib slogans here. For millennia, money from the shadows has often sought the light. I would, I confess, feel slightly more at ease turning up to witness the award of the Cooperative Bank or John Lewis Booker Prize. But we don't have that option just now.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence