Philip Hensher: Why Austen would never win the Booker

The ambitious novel with a regard for humour is not dead, but is beleaguered

Share
Related Topics

For once, the story about the Orange Prize is not that the women-only prize excludes half of the writing population from its consideration.

We've probably got used to that, just as we're used to prizes with other apparently random exclusions – first novels, second novels, novelists under 35, first-time novelists over 40 (the McKitterick Prize). No, the controversy raised this time is over something less surprising. Women write terrible novels, too.

Daisy Goodwin, the chair of this year's Orange Prize, unveiled her longlist with the sort of sincerely irritated comment which can only come from being obliged to read 129 mostly awful novels for money. "There's not been much wit and not much joy ... there are a lot of books that start with a rape ... I'm more of a light and shade person. The ones where there was humour were much appreciated I can tell you."

I don't doubt her findings for one moment. Judging a literary prize that casts its net wide is a sobering experience. To misquote a great comedian, there's no difficulty in distinguishing between the publishers' submissions for the Booker prize and a little ray of sunshine. Daisy Goodwin aimed her comments at novels by women, far too many of which seemed to be inflected by the misery memoir, and there is some truth in that observation. Truth would also have been on her side if she had referred in general to the sort of books which publishers routinely submit for literary prizes. For the most part, they are perfect hell.

Whenever I've judged a literary prize, I've been amazed by the monotony of the topics the least promising books dwell on. War, violence, terminal illness, abuse, misery, and more war. Not that these are unworthy subjects for fiction, of course, but they always seemed to dwell on grim subjects with a resolutely miserable response. A good social history of war or deprivation will always show how much human warmth, tenderness and even humour survives in a tragic situation. One of my favourite books, Natalia Ginzburg's Family Sayings, tells the horrifying story of her family's persecution under Mussolini, and still manages to be one of the funniest books every written. Great comic writing can thrive in desperate situations – P G Wodehouse actually wrote Money in the Bank, one of his most delightful entertainments, in a concentration camp.

The belief that literary greatness lives in unrelieved grimness is an odd one. Ion Trewin, the administrator of the Booker prize, was observing the other day that Jane Austen would probably not win the prize, were she writing today. He meant because she wrote romances about love, but I think she would also be unlikely to be submitted because her books are, above all, funny. It is quite hard to think of many great English novels of the past quite devoid of the joke or the set piece, from Fielding to Dickens to Kingsley Amis. Conversely, reading through the pile of submissions for the Booker, the Costa, or, I suppose, the Orange, it is hard to find one which, at any point, sets out to amuse. It is always easier, in a committee, to make the case for a humourless rendering of a tragic situation than for one which, with real expertise, makes the reader laugh.

The ambitious novel with a regard for humour is not dead, but is beleaguered; the novel by a woman which sets out to describe, with humour and wit, a domestic scenario is now a real rarity. It's hard to imagine an Evelyn Waugh or an Elizabeth Taylor making their way nowadays. Daisy Goodwin has an excellent point. I hope she carries the day, in the end, by awarding the prize to something intended, in the broadest sense, to amuse us.

And the winner is ... Hollywood's divorce lawyer

If you want to know how often Oscars were awarded to a man over 60, or to the role of a disabled character – the early years are full of prizes given to tales of deaf ballerinas – there will be a statistician, somewhere, who can tell you. This week, Sandra Bullock walked out on her husband within days of winning the Best Actress Oscar. Naturally, there was a statistician on hand to tell you how many times marital discord has followed on from an actress winning the prize. Don't they have anything better to do?

Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999; Helen Hunt in 1998; Halle Berry in 2002; Julia Roberts in 2001; Reese Witherspoon in 2006; all ended long-running relationships soon after the award, preferring the little gold man to the large hairy one. Susan Sarandon, we are told – I think this may be stretching a point – split up with Tim Robbins a mere 14 years after winning an Oscar in 1996. Could it be that the husbands and partners can't stand to be outshone? Or might they have made a pact with their honour to stick with a needy diva just until they made it, and not one moment longer? Interestingly, it doesn't seem to happen with the wives of Oscar-winning actors. I dare say they have put up with towering egos so long, the addition of a thirteen-and-a-half-inch statuette wouldn't add too greatly to their domestic burden.

This case takes the biscuit for sheer spite

A Michael Campbell, working through the night at a call centre, was overcome with temptation, and ate some biscuits from a workmate's desk.

What follows tells you a great deal about Britain today. Instead of saying "Do you think you could not eat my biscuits," or suggesting that they pool in together for office biscuits, the owner of the biscuits, Pamela Harrison, brought the matter to management. Since the workers were constantly filmed on CCTV – of course they were – Mr Campbell was caught bang to rights. The matter came to court, where he was fined £7 for the biscuits and £150 in costs. The magistrate, Lesley Pyrah, called his actions "a breach of trust", rather than, for instance, "a total load of crap clogging up my courtroom."

" De minimis non curat lex" used to be quite a good motto for lawyers. So Mr Campbell ate someone else's biscuits. Big deal. Against the sheer, terrifying boredom of working nights in a Newcastle call centre, there would seem to be no defence except the wild excitement of nicking the ghastly Ms Harrison's biscuits. Mr Campbell maintained that he thought the biscuits had been bought by the company, Convergys, for communal use.

Which, considering that they are the sort of bastards that apparently film their employees at work, seems an unrealistically held belief. I wonder how much money Convergys would save, and how much employee goodwill, if they scrapped the surveillance and handed out Hobnobs instead.

React Now

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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£14000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
Cameron and Miliband went head-to-head in the live televised debate last night  

The Battle for Number 10: Great TV but not an interview for the job of prime minister

Alice Jones
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss