Howard Jacobson: Forget Kevin, it's the book we need to talk about


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The Independent Online

And so, with a dignified nod to anyone who cares to notice, I straighten my bow tie, wipe away a tear, put on my bravest face and leave the stage.

My friends, I've lived a life that's full and travelled each and every highway, but it's now the turn of Julian Barnes to do it his way.

I suppose I could have refused to step down, wrestled the Man Booker Oscar from Barnes's grasp, made last year's acceptance speech all over again, and dared the powers that be – Ion Trewin who presides with avuncular steeliness over the award, Dotti Irving who administers it in a similar spirit (though I know of no female equivalent to the word "avuncular"), and the judges against whom Julian Barnes declared he wouldn't hear a word (I felt the same about mine the year before) – to do their worst. "Come and get me, suckers!"

It's at moments like this that the great movie heroes of your boyhood return to you – James Cagney making his last stand on that huge, spherical gasoline tank, defying the cops, and as the tank goes up in flames, declaring, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" Or Howard Keel as the mountie who loves Ann Blyth too much to allow her to return to her Indian lover (Fernando Lamas) who has never stopped serenading her throughout the film – "When I'm calling you, oo-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo" – from high up and far away in the badlands of the Rockies. That's Rose Marie, if you're not familiar with the plot or the lyrics. And yes, I know that in the movie Howard Keel actually lets Ann Blyth go to Fernando Lamas. Just as in life I'm making way for Julian Barnes. There's a heroism in renunciation, too. But I'm imagining an alternative ending.

As it turned out, the awarding of this year's prize had an alternative, not to say surreal beginning, with Dame Stella Rimington rounding on those who had charged her with philistinism by reminding them she'd studied English literature at Edinburgh, citing F R Leavis and quoting Pope. There couldn't be much doubt then – insofar as there'd been any before – that Barnes was going to be the winner, and one must wonder now where that leaves the new Literature prize that was being widely canvassed at the time of the "readability" row, when the talk was all of the Man Booker dumbing down. Give it to Julian Barnes and you haven't dumbed it down. So will the new prize simply slink away? I hope not. Let me make my position clear. Though I have been a critic of the Man Booker from the days when it was just the Booker, and still wince remembering some of the things past judges said, I won't hear a word against it now. Make what you like of that, but I have seen from the inside the interest it generates, the new readers it finds, not just for the winning book, but – if that book has the power to stimulate – for literature in general. Books I wrote years ago, which I thought were long buried, have been touched back into life; and books not written by me, ditto – for every novel is a sort of argument with other novels and, when the argument is entered, the curious reader will not stop at you. The logic of which is not to leave it all to the Man Booker – however good a job it does – but to welcome other prizes that will put their shoulders to the wheel. In an age when it is easy not to read in the way an exacting novel insists you read, when people don't have the time and have not been educated to it, reading and writing need as much tangible encouragement as they can get.

And as much passionate debate. You could argue, since she's read F R Leavis, that Stella Rimington had no business waving the tatty flag of readability in the first place. Whatever is meant by readability, it is built into whatever is meant by literary excellence. That which isn't readable isn't excellent by any standard I recognise. And if there's one argument we don't need advancing right now it's that literature and pleasure are opposites. "Yes but what do you read for fun?" I am sometimes asked when I say my favourite novelists are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James. "Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James," I reply. What could be more fun than to read a novelist the intelligence and vitality of whose sentences make you swoon with pleasure?

Conversely, that there can be much in the way of pleasure to be had in a novel whose sentences are not alive with intelligence I seriously doubt. I've had a go at airport blockbusters and they aren't readable. Stupidity, Dame Stella, isn't readable. But you know that, hence your citing Leavis and quoting Pope. All along, it would appear, you were only teasing.

Good. We've argued, and with libraries closing, independent bookshops going bust, and the physical book losing out to the cyberspace book – a loss, no matter how highly we esteem the Kindle – there is further argument to be had. Never mind Kevin, it's the book we need to talk about. The film director John Waters points the way in a visual joke that's going round the internet at the moment, unless it's been going round a long time and I've been slow to spot it. It shows Waters sitting in a book-lined room, at a book-strewn desk, and saying: "We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them."

Now that I am no longer the current holder of the Man Booker prize I don't have to be careful what I say. So I'll second John Waters. No book, no fuck. And if all they have is a Kindle? Well, maybe just a kiss.