What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, July 27, 2012

It's Booker Time Again!

The longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize was published earlier this week. It's often an interesting list as it is open to the best work published in the UK in a given year by a citizen of the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. This includes most of the English-speaking world outside North America -- books published in India, South Africa, Australia, chunks of the Caribbean and elsewhere all are eligible for the prize.

The criteria? It is to be awarded to "the best novel in the opinion of the judges."  And here's where the fun begins. Those judges change annually, and are often a fairly eclectic group. For instance, while this year's panel is headed by literary critic Peter Stothard, last year's was chaired by Stella Rimington, former head of MI-5 (yeah -- spooks!) and an author of suspense thrillers. Rimington's choice -- and her choice of books -- sparked fury and outrage among the literary establishment and cognoscenti last year, as she opted for books that are great reads. The shortlist looked like this:
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
  • Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
  • Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (already reviewed here)
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Some of these books aroused fury and ire among literary purists, who argued that if Barnes as the only member of "literature's sacred groves" (to quote an article in the Guardian) didn't win (he did), the world would end; justice would not have been done; the Man Booker Prize would have been sullied beyond repair. Etcetera. As it happened, I didn't love any books on the shortlist -- I felt that Barnes and lots of other writers have tackled very similar material in very similar ways in other novels -- but what bothered me a lot was the nature of the debate.  Rimington's camp insisted that popularity/accessibility/readability should factor into their decision. I disagreed and agreed at the same time: often, the best novels challenge us in some way; at the same time, a novel like John Banville's The Infinities (which I happened to love) is likely to fly over the heads of 99.9% of readers who don't happen to have an extensive classical education and who will thus catch only the most obvious of analogies. (Note: that novel wasn't eligible for last year's award.) Does being oblique, opaque and uber-literary make a novel better? Not in my opinion. So irate and huffy were authors like Banville, Pat Barker and David Mitchell that they began supporting the creation a new prize -- a kind of anti-Booker, that they claim will recapture the "spirit" of the old Booker -- to be called the Literature Prize. (Curiously enough, Banville seems prepared to have his cake and eat it simultaneously, as he writes above-average "popular" detective novels under a pseudonym, Benjamin Black.)

Well, the world didn't come to an end, and we're into another Booker season. This time around, Peter Stothard says the panel is emphasizing works and not authors -- which is why some high-profile authors with new books just out, like Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan, Zadie Smith and, yes, John Banville, didn't make the list. Also, Stothard wanted to identify books he felt people might want to read on beach -- but that they definitely would want to bring back from the beach to re-read, and that, on re-reading, they would find more and more there in the pages to ponder. So, here is this year's long list, which will be trimmed down to half-a-dozen finalists in September. (An asterisk indicates titles that are available in the United States.)
  • *Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • Phillida by Andre Brink
  • Communion Town by Sam Thompson
  • *Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
  • Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
  • The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
  • The Yips by Nicola Barker
  • *Skios by Michael Frayn
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Ewan Eng
  • The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
  • Umbrella by Will Self
  • *The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
As those of you who have read my review of Rachel Joyce's novel, below, may suspect, this time it's I who am a bit surprised that a particular novel made it into the shortlist! It's a pleasant enough novel, but there's little or nothing in it that would cause me to be interested in re-reading it. (If a woman in her 30s were the main character, and the issues she confronts on her tramp across England were reshaped accordingly, it would probably be labeled chick lit.) So some of those applauding this list may be in for a surprise when they read this not-very-literary novel!

But the two lists do have one important thing in common: both are ignoring new works by iconic authors in favor of lesser-known or new writers. (I'll be curious to say if critics are as ferocious about Stothard bypassing Banville, Amis and MacEwan as they were about Rimington overlooking books by Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje last year.) But one of the things I do like about both shortlists-- regardless of my thoughts about specific books -- is that it shakes up the landscape a bit. Whether or not some of these authors and books on the shortlist will go on to have a career like those of Amis, MacEwan or Ondaatje and emerge as revered literary icons, who knows? Does it matter? After all, authors who have already made a name for themselves are going to attract critical but respectful attention by reviewers and attention by bookshop buyers and readers, who know theyse are authors they should read. What I enjoy about both lists is that they draw attention to books that may be every bit as good -- perhaps even better -- but which, because they are written by authors who may be younger or have a lower profile, wouldn't automatically command attention.

Moreover, what critics of the prize's judges last year have overlooked is that picking the "best book of the year" should be controversial because one person's "best book" will always be different from someone else's candidate; even their criteria will differ. True, there are basic standards as to the kind of book that should be considered for a prize of this kind -- but I don't think those are ever gregiously violated. Let's be honest: none of the shortlisted books were penned by Sophie Kinsella or James Patterson, or are formulaic stuff churned out at the rate of a book a year. And once that basic threshold is crossed -- well, all bets are off. I think it's quite reasonable for a panel of judges to conclude that a book by an unknown made more of an impact on them -- even if imperfect -- than a technically accomplished book by someone already in the canon that happened to underwhelm them.

So -- on with the race! I'll be reading Michael Frayn's novel shortly, and already have raved about Mantel's sequel on this blog. There are two or three others that I'll want to read and probably will review, especially Andre Brink's Phillida. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. I'm a bit underwhelmed by this year's list, to be honest. I've already read Bring Up The Bodies but few of the other books take my fancy. Despite all the controversy, I thoroughly enjoyed last year's selection, I thought it was more diverse and included more 'fun' books.