Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Anne Enright wins Booker -- and what larks!

My dears, I haven't had such a good laugh over breakfast in years! I fair spluttered into my porridge.

The Booker prize, according to its official web site, 'promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year'. And 'best' in these quarters is defined in terms of literary fiction.

It turns out that the 2007 prize was awarded last night. The winner was Anne Enright, who was apparently the outsider, and her novel The Gathering is 'a bleak story of a dysfunctional Irish family'. This is not, you will understand, a novel that I am about to rush out and buy. But nevertheless, the circumstances of the award provide much more entertainment than the average literary novel ever does.

The laughs came from the introductory remarks which were made by the Chairman of the judges, Sir Howard Davies. You can read all about it in the Times. Basically, what the Chairman had to say was that too many reviewers are far too kind to literary novels, being very reluctant to do anything except heap praise upon them. 'There appear to be some novels,' he said, 'where people leave their critical faculties at home.'

He quotes examples. Ben Okri's latest book was, he said, 'more or less unreadable, but you would never catch that from the reviews because of the status that Okri has achieved'.

J.M. Coetzee's latest was described by Sir Howard as 'a strange construct which I don’t think comes off as a novel. Yet it was treated with exaggerated deference by many reviewers.'

No! Who would have guessed it? Who would have thought that the literary establishment in London would be ensuring, with a few exceptions, that only nice things are said about lit'ry books, while books issued by small presses and written by unknown writers are steadfastly ignored?

Sir Howard, the Times said, stopped short of accusing authors of back-scratching, but the Times itself has more guts. In an editorial, the paper lays out the facts in plain English.
Presenting the Man Booker Prize last night, Howard Davies referred to a curious habit of literary critics. Their curious habit is to review each other’s books fulsomely. Author X selects Author Y’s novel as her Book of the Year. Author Y reciprocates by reviewing Author X’s novel as the most ripping yarn since Rudyard Kipled and Haggard Rode. In London’s literary tent, everybody is related to, or in love with, or in debt to, or has expectations from, everybody else.
Well, I told you publishing was a friendly business, only last week. 'Caveat lector,' says the Times. 'Select your reviewers (and books) with care.' Indeed.

Such general thoughts as I have had upon the Booker prize appeared here in January 2005. I have nothing to add, except that you might like to sit back and watch it all happen to Anne Enright, the winner who wasn't expected.


Anonymous said...

The Planeta prize was also awarded yesterday, here in Barcelona. The prize? A very tidy 601,000 euros or 421,000 UK pounds or 854,000 US dollars. Plus the winner gets a guaranteed print run of 215,000 copies. This year's runner up, a well-known TV personality cum occasional novelist, picked up a consolation prize of (just) 150,250 euros (105,000 UK pounds). Makes the MAN Booker look a little silly don't you think? Stats: 469 contending titles of which 211 were novels from Spain of which 33 were published in Barcelona. The winner? Author and journalist Juan Jose Millas, 61, for his book El Mundo (The World), which is partly based on his family's move from Valencia to Madrid when he was 6 years old.

"If one looks into the lives of writers, there is always something that was broken," Millas said in Barcelona, where the award was announced. "We write to repair what was broken."

Expensive repair job that then.

Tim Worstall said...

Something of a standard Private Eye column fo decades past isn't it? Listing who has reviewed who as "book of the year" across the different papers? And finding, amazingly, that it all goes round in a circle so that everyone in the magic group gets recommended by one or other of said group?

Mark Thornton said...

Re-reading your 2005 post, I believe this is the biggest argument in favour of the increasing army of blog reviewers out there on the Internet.

When the "elitism/quality v democratisation/vulgarisation" argument hit the headlines a few months back (driven in part by John Sutherland's article in the Telegraph) there was a big hoo-ha about blog reviewers, and the 'degradation of literary taste'.

In your 2005 post, you rail (quite rightly) against the Booker winner being held up as some absolute benchmark in literary quality. All this wouldn't matter if people were able to make book choices in a biodiverse book retail eco-system, with no pressure to have the latest bestseller, Unfortunately we don't have that.

What we actually have is a hideous celebrity-drenched, marketing-fuelled, bestseller-driven winner-takes-all environment into which the Booker fits perfectly. And there will be plenty of people who need to be 'seen' reading the winner.

The blog review network seems to be the perfect antidote to this. Yes, there are cliques, yes, people review their mates books, but the network effect (of which Sutherland seems to be ignorant of) should deliver a better consensus on what 'quality' writing is.

By that measure Darkmans should have won - but sincere congrats to Anne Enright in any case!

Anonymous said...

My first instinct was to think that this was a bright light on the horizon, but I'm left suspicious. Whether the Booker judges have suddenly become enlightened or this is a facade in the face of criticism to show how broad minded they really are will remain to be seen. It's profit driven, regardless, and I hardly think it's as spontaneously generous as it appears.

As an aside, I loved the comment by The Times’s literary editor, “One has to be careful in calling a very sophisticated book old-fashioned..." Let no writer dare appear sophisticated or, God help them, "old fashioned."

Clary Antome said...

On the other hand, from the rat-in-the-slushpile perspective here, the literary establishment IS a pretty exclusive club. And as is known of any elite, its members will do just about anything not only to keep their desirable position but also to ensure that it remains desirable by being so difficult to reach.
What's the point of praising an unknown miserly writing-rat? Wouldn't that endanger the more or less widespread myth that writing is such a divine gift that only a blessed minority can possess? Mercy on the established writers and their close friends, who have to come up again and again with big praising words like any PR campaign -- just to keep their position...

Anonymous said...

All excellent points, as usual, and I agree.
Unfortunately, though, the Times does not keep to its own advice. I do like their book supplement on a Saturday (it makes doing the ironing bearable, to look forward to it afterwards), but I do get as fed up with it as other publications when you see the same old names reviewing the same old other names' books.
I won't be rushing out to buy the winner either -- but I did enjoy On Chesil Beach very much (I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer, whose book review editor, Frank Wilson, is the most enlightened book review editor I have come across). I have never met Ian McEwan or all those other lit types, though -as I am a science editor by profession, nobody wants to know me -- science is not a "must buy, must review" topic, on the whole, either. If you haven't read On CB, Michael, I think you might enjoy it, and it certainly won't take you long.

Anonymous said...

i was torn between disgust and mirth when i read of the usual potato-eating misery-memoir winning a literary prize. What puke.

People occasionally give me the TLS and assorted magazines thinking i'll enjoy reading book reviews. In truth i gave up reading them about 5 years ago after reading a few contemporary novels: these novels had been hyped to the max, and were readable enough; but on the whole i'd rather have just re-read PG Wodehouse or Dostoevsky, or Robertson Davies...the praise heaped on the McEwans and assorted mediocrities is known to induce vomiting, loathing and attacks of psychotic violence in the sensitive and well-read. Beware.

If they're still praising a book 50 years after it came out, they may have a point. Otherwise, assume it's all part of the Old Pals' network.

Anonymous said...

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