Beware the assassins of the book world

'How can a grown man write "in thrall to its destiny"? Well, through book abuse, I'm afraid'
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The Independent Online

Having missed all the Booker Prize hoo-ha, I thought I should try to make amends by reading a piece in The Times on Wednesday by Simon Jenkins, who chaired the judges this year.

Having missed all the Booker Prize hoo-ha, I thought I should try to make amends by reading a piece in The Times on Wednesday by Simon Jenkins, who chaired the judges this year.

It was a very disturbing piece. If I were in charge of Simon Jenkins, I would have him carefully watched for a while.

One unsettling sign, right at the start, was Jenkins's innocent admission that even when he is not involved in judging, he always tackles all the front-runners. Or, as he puts it, "a nagging cultural gene induces me to plough through the Booker shortlist." What a wonderful gene that must be! Simon Jenkins is at least twice as old as the Booker Prize, yet he has inherited a gene from his forefathers which impels the owner to read all six books on a late-20th-century shortlist! A gene that tells the future!

This year, says Simon Jenkins, from being poacher "I turned gamekeeper and chaired the Booker judges. Instead of six books, I had to read 120. The outcome has not been what I expected, a bout of literary indigestion. I emerge strangely impressed. Writing a good novel is extremely difficult. As Philip Larkin agreed when he was chairman, it is harder by far than writing a good poem."

As Philip Larkin agreed with whom? This suggests that Philip Larkin had heard someone else say that writing novels was harder than writing poetry, and agreed with them. But the only person who is quoted as saying this is Simon Jenkins, so apparently the late Philip Larkin agreed in his lifetime with something that Jenkins only expressed this year. Perhaps Larkin also had a nagging cultural gene that allowed him to agree with statements which would not be made until after he had died.

There are other odd things in the Jenkins piece. Of the winner, Margaret Atwood's Blind Assassin, he says: "Yet this is not a sad book, rather a wry tale of life's accidence." Accidence? I have never seen the word before. Is there such a word? Yes, say the dictionaries I consult, there is. It has one single meaning: "the part of grammar that deals with the changes in form that words undergo to mark distinction in tense, number, gender, etc". So the way Jenkins sums up the Booker winner is as "not a sad book, rather a wry tale of the part of grammar that deals with the changes in form that words undergo..." Mmm. Sounds a bit dry to me.

Jenkins thinks the six novels on the shortlist had "strong narrative energy. All contrive to marshal the arts of mystery and suspense. All were voyages of discovery through time, voyages undertaken if not in all cases completed..."

This sounds impressive until you pause for a moment and remember that virtually all novels are journeys through time. Apart from odd short pieces of Samuel Beckett and a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet which I once undertook but did not in fact complete, I cannot think of a novel that does not set out with some sort of narrative energy to take characters on a journey of discovery through time.

What is going on here is a piece written by a man who has just read 120 novels on the trot and is under the illusion that it has had no effect on him. But the truth is that he has been so battered by over-indulgence in the outpourings of lonely novelists that it has caused a temporary breakdown in his control of thought and language. It has left him in a state in which Jenkins has lost control of his prose, in which he invents non-existent nagging cultural genes, in which he uses terrible clichés like "turning gamekeeper", in which he thinks that the Booker winner is about obscure forms of grammar, and claims that Philip Larkin agreed before he died with something that Jenkins has only just realised...

There are other things in the article which I will spare you, such as when he writes: "I thank novelists everywhere for struggling with so little reward to keep the tribe awake and in thrall to its destiny." How can a grown man write "in thrall to its destiny" and not cross it out immediately ? Well, through book abuse, I'm afraid. An overdose of novels may not be as toxic as an overdose of heroin or alcohol but it clearly has weird side-effects. Let's hope Simon Jenkins keeps off the novels and returns to his former good health - to the rest of us, let it be a stern lesson.

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