Philip Hensher: Why Austen would never win the Booker

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

Monday 22 March 2010 01:00

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.

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