It's one of the great mysteries of our age.
In part 1 of my investigation into their complaints, I didn't mention the most prominent article in last weekend's edition of Guardian Books (from where the above list of possessions comes): Lynn Barber's interview with Nick Hornby's brother-in-law, Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland, Enigma, Pompeii and now (herald of farty, out of tune trumpets) Imperium.
Harris shares a grudge with his relative. He particularly hates the sort of 'literary' novels that win the Booker Prize Barber reports. Harris says: 'It must be good if it's difficult. Oldest con trick in the world.'
It's not the first time he's had the freedom of the Sunday papers to express his contempt for all things literary. In 1998, and after appearing on the BBC's coverage of the Booker Prize, he raged in the Sunday Times against the pretensions of the literary circus: "It sets out with the noble intention of making 'literary writing' (whatever that is) more accessible and it ends up doing the opposite". He's not wrong. But Harris doesn't see the prize as the problem so much as the one
that has afflicted English literature for 70 or 80 years: the idea that a proper novel is not primarily a means of entertainment but somehow a "higher calling". [...] The idea that there was such a thing as a specifically 'literary novel' would have seemed absurd in the 19th century, and novelists like Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Eliot would have looked with bewilderment at the pretensions of the Booker Prize.Putting aside the problems of such a narrow historical comparison, that "higher calling" is fascinatingly vague. What does it mean - is it part of the "noble intention" of which he speaks? But what's noble about promoting something he sees as pretentious? Perhaps it harks back to the ambitions of the pre-Victorian Romantics seeking a more spiritually-attuned, more authentic literature in contrast to the periwigged games of the Augustans? I would guess for Harris it means just a writing inspired by concerns other than merely entertaining a potential audience. No wonder there's a contradiction. And Harris is sure of the culprits:
Nobody has ever nailed this schizophrenia more brilliantly than Professor John Carey in 'The Intellectuals and the Masses'. 'The spread of literacy to the masses' he argues, 'impelled intellectuals in the early 20th century to produce a mode of culture (modernism) that the masses could not enjoy.'So it was literacy programmes that caused To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, The Waste Land, The Trial, The Rainbow and The Golden Bowl! And all this time, I thought ...
Lest we forget: the great works of 20th century art were created solely to exclude plebs like you and me.
(The masses, the masses, how strangely that sounds to me!)
As I reported in part 1, such crowd-displeasing novels didn't feature much in the sample edition of our best serious newspaper even though the Booker shortlist is almost upon us. It rather counters Hornby's contention that the broadsheet press is the last bastion against a return to the halcyon days of Victorian fiction in which everyone skipped merrily together through sunlit groves with a copies of Little Dorrit in their hands, far from the sneers of "intellectuals".
So why do he and his brother-in-law accuse the medium, in which they feature so prominently and so regularly, of being dominated by those promoting "a kind of literary apartheid: [where] there are novels people want to buy and novels they are told to buy, and rarely the twain do meet"?
Perhaps it's because sales and marketing hype does not impress critics who have read the book it is selling as much as it does potential readers who haven't, and the brothers by marriage cannot comprehend the contrast. The TLS reviewer Richard Jenkyns says Imperium is "flat-footed from the start" and "curiously pointless". Perhaps he would have said something different had he been restricted to reading the blurb. People who buy the novel tend to have only that to go on, that and the posters, the adverts, the appearances on Channel 4 News (with Harris' buddy Jon Snow) and innumerable press features (none of which "tells" the punter to buy anything, of course).
It's odd too that Harris does not name one Booker-winning author who justifies its becoming, as he claims, a byword for "unreadibility and affectation". In an aside about the negative effects of winning, he reckons Penelope Fitzgerald and Salman Rushdie wrote good novels after winning the prize, while (another buddy) Ian McEwan "to his eternal credit" wrote a readable winner with Amsterdam. So it seems there are a lot of exceptions to his rule. In fact, not one inclusion.
However, in a comic moment, Harris claims that John le Carré is the one writer who "bridges the worlds of the literary novel and bestseller". This is hilarious enough in itself but remember only a few lines before he wrote "literary fiction (whatever that is)". If it's defined by unreadibility and affectation, then that would explain why I don't rate le Carré's novels. So I guess Harris is right: he's a bestseller too.
Curiously, Lynn Barber reports that Harris "regards Imperium as his most 'literary' novel when he claims to despise any such thing". So we might want to look more closely at this novel despite what the TLS says. Harris offers this insight into its inspiration:
It may not be as popular as the others - I hope it is, but it may not be - but I feel it is something worth doing, that is making sense of my entire life, of what I've done and seen and known about.Pretentious, moi?