Boyd Tonkin: Let's zip up the unreadable trash
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 21 October 2011
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.
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