Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Booker fallout

The Belfast Telegraph is one of the many newspapers having fun with the fallout from Sir Howard Davies "cocking a snook at the literary establishment", specifically its reviewing culture. David Lister enacts his name with entertaining examples of "literary love-ins" between reviewers and authors. But these reveal not so much the incestuous nature of literary culture as a sour view of friendship.

Back in the primary source, Sir HD complains that too many reviewers are not brave enough to say a novel doesn't work. Even if this were true, by what criteria is a novel deemed not to have worked? Is it by the logic of the novel under review or by the standard of the kind of novel Sir Howard wants to recommend to the public? We're not told. Of course, I think it's the former. As I argued in my blog-review of JM Coetzee's latest novel - a book the Booker judges singled out for criticism - is, on its own terms, a success; that is, a necessary failure. It reverses what it means for a novel to "work". And that, I would say, is one of the distinctions of a literary novel, certainly so late in the literary day. It staggers me that Booker prize judges are so insensitive that they can't see this.

In the next line of his complaints, Sir HD adds that reviewers "don't care whether [novels are] readable or not". Again, what is "readable"? Diary of a Bad year is, I would say, relatively easy to read. On the other hand, I found the opening chapter of On Chesil Beach unreadable - a novel that received a high number of respectful reviews and made the Booker shortlist. Clearly there are different opinions here, but reviewing isn't just about opinion; it's about patient attention to the work. This tends to even out the kind of judgements Sir HD wants. Maybe the chairman unwittingly disapproves of patience. There is evidence to suggest it.

Sir Howard happily admitted to having read submitted novels at a rate of 80 pages per hour. Jeanette Winterson compares this to putting a record on at 78 instead of a 33: "if you've got some bloody idiot who thinks it's great to read at 80 pages an hour when it's not The Da Vinci Code, you're doomed! Well, I am." Sir Howard's responds by misquoting and misrepresenting the reason for her outburst.

6 comments:

  1. 80 pages per hour...that's astounding. The best I've been able to get up to was 73 back in the heady days of the late 90s through a diet of amphetamines, sleep deprivation and electric shock therapy. The books I read... not that I can remember much about them, but there were plenty of them. I now average a disappointing 64 per hour, and that's only because of limiting myself to writers of the short, clean, curt style...Camus' Outsider, that kind of thing.
    The lines from Blake, which I read earlier at a furious pace, come to mind:

    The errors of a wise man make your rule
    Rather than the perfections of a fool

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  2. I don't understand the logic of single winner judgments. Nor of the collaborative process. I would rather see each judge read and submit a vote independently in a multi-tiered process of elimination. At some set point, if there is a tie for the first choice, perhaps one or two additional votes might be taken, and at that point, if there are three or four at the top--then there would be three or four sharing the prize.

    I would hope that might be the case more years than not. More realistic, in terms of the comparative merit, and in those years when a consensus selected a single winner, it would mean a great deal more.

    Setting up a literary honor as though it were a track meet, with a single "winner" makes no sense at all: a publicity gimmick to sell books. No matter how much self-satisfied ego stroking the judges get out of participating in this sort of folly... like the joke; we know what you are, now we're just haggling over the price.

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  3. I must confess to never having recorded my reading speed, though what does it mean these days when so many books (paperbacks in particular) are puffed out with white space and generous margins to bump up the word count and appeal to that most aliterate of book-choosing concepts, value for money?

    In any event, surely the book decides the speed, not the reader? You're not going to get much out of Saul Bellow at 50 pages an hour, let alone 80. Similarly, there'd be little point in dawdling for a minute and a half over each page of a Patricia Highsmith suspense novel.

    I have some concerns with the way Sir Howard Davies, for example, gave his thoughts on the six shortlisted novels in the Independent a week before the announcement; but in his defence, if you read the full text of his speech on the Booker site, the stuff about reviewing takes up literally a few lines.

    Incidentally I read Winterson's new novel quite quickly too and very much enjoyed it.

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  4. What a bunch of fools. Like literary prizes matter.

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  5. The correct phrase is a flock of fools. A bunch should only be used in conjunction with bananas.

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  6. If literary prizes mattered, they wouldn't.

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