If only hard books are good, Austen is rubbish

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The Independent Online

Whatever the latest odds on the Man Booker Prize, the only thing that's certain is that the judges definitely won't get it right on Tuesday. Last year, the books on the shortlist were all too easy. This year, they are too hard. There's only one rule for Man Booker judges and that's that whatever their choice, it will be wrong. I'd hate to be a Man Booker judge. (Who am I kidding? I'd be a great Man Booker judge.) Nonetheless, I am alarmed at recent comments by this year's chairman of the judges, the admirable critic Sir Peter Stothard.

"Storytelling is fine," he said, "but it doesn't require Man Booker judges to decide what people are going to enjoy taking on holiday and reading on the beach." I am worried that people will read certain interpretations into this. Firstly, that Man Booker-winning novels are not the same sort of books that are taken on holiday and read on the beach. Secondly, that storytelling has no place in a Man Booker winner. Thirdly, that intelligent readers do not need directing towards fantastic fiction because they'll know just by sniffing them which novels are any good. (And perhaps fourthly, that beaches have armed border guards confiscating any book that isn't 50 Shades of Grey or Cheryl Cole's autobiography.)

Sir Peter cannot have meant this, because none of these things is true. I read Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker-winner Wolf Hall on a beach, it tells a great story, and it became a bestseller after it was nominated for the prize. But it's easy to imagine people reading things into his words and deciding that they can't be bothered with the Man Booker. Not if it only chooses novels that have no stories and can only be read in dusty offices in Oxbridge, ideally through pince nez.

Sir Peter was also led into talking about difficult vs easy books. This wasn't his fault; everyone who judges a book prize now has to have an opinion about "readability", ever since last year's chair, Dame Stella Rimington, said that a Man Booker novel had to "zip along". Of course, what she said was hard to dispute logically, because nobody enjoys books that are unreadable, but she may have used the wrong form of words.

Unfortunately, Stothard's answer was taken to mean that this year's judges are looking for books that are not easy to read, because these are the ones that will stand the test of time. But he can't have meant that, because of course he will be aware of Shakespeare, and Dickens, and Austen. Some people might think that he did mean that, though. Some people such as Ladbrokes, who changed their odds shortly after Stothard's interview to make Will Self's ambitious and mind-blowing linguistic tapestry of a novel, Umbrella, the favourite to win. (Umbrella requires some commitment, but it also tells a cracking story, by the way.)

In case anyone has misinterpreted the recent rumblings about the Man Booker prize and thinks that it's not for them, I'd like to put their mind at rest. The shortlisted titles are all readable. They do tell stories. And you are allowed to take them on the beach. Enjoy!