Can books be too readable?
December 4th 2021
The briefest sweep of the internet will show you that the Booker Prize has been quite the source of contention since 1968. It has attracted dramatic article titles such as ‘Booker Prize divides quality from readability’, and ‘Controversy at the Booker is as old as the prize itself’. From lofty rejection of a shortlist deemed too ‘readable’, to outrage at a shortlist boasting only one British born author, what the Booker prize fundamentally is and what it should stand for seems to be a perpetual battleground.
The Booker has a complicated and unpleasant history. It takes its name from the various different investors it has had since its founding by Mcconnell Booker in 1969. In 2002 the Man Group took over and with it the name changed to the ‘Man Booker’, and most recently, in 2019 the charitable foundation Crankstart took over the position, leading the name to return to the original ‘Booker Prize’. The history of the Booker prize along with the companies that have invested in it, is entwined with Britain’s history of colonisation.This should be acknowledged and considered in relation with the Booker as Natalie Hopkinson does here. The Booker is no longer associated with the Booker Company and the cultural significance of the prize in contemporary society reflects popular interest in literature and literary stakes that go far beyond the monetary interests.
One of the key questions that bubbles up year after year in relation to the Booker prize is around the perception of the so-called ‘quality’ of the shortlisted and winning texts. The question on the table: what makes a good book? The 2011 shortlist triggered a particularly vicious debate on this subject, due to the perceived ‘readability’ of the shortlist, which led Jackie Kay to comment that ‘it is a sad day when the Booker prize is afraid to be bookish’.
The idea that obtuse and difficult reads are somehow more valuable precisely because they are difficult, complicated and (often) boring, is very silly.
The cheapest, most denigrated fiction of the 19th century, the famous Penny Dreadfuls were also the most widely read, accessibility trumping ‘quality’ for the huge number of working class children and adults who consumed the fiction. To this day Sweeney Todd, which began its life as a Penny Dreadful, remains popular in British society. Stephen King is one of the most popular authors in the country and yet despite public appetite for his fiction, he is, as King terms it, ‘the Big Mac and fries of the literary world’. Some might think these texts have less value than, say, an Ishiguro novel - but there’s no question that they’re more popular. In our view, if something is popular, then by definition it has cultural value.
In 1748 the first erotica novel was published by John Cleland, entitled Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Cleland demonstrates about as much understanding of female pleasure as you can expect of a male erotica writer proclaiming a confident understanding of female experience, but, as the first published pornography it represents a fascinating moment in the history of literature. In 1748 the novel's publication was suppressed and despite being popular, the book was shunned in literary circles; yet today it remains a famous novel, studied in academic literary institutions across the world. All this to say that ‘readable’ books are valuable, even if it takes ‘literary circles’ several hundred years to acknowledge it.
In 2019 the judging committee decided to ignore the strict rules laid out and award the prize to two authors: Bernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman and Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments. In 1993 a rule had been made that specifically banned two winners being selected for the prize, and twice the jury asked the chair of the board if the rule might be overturned, twice they were told there could only be one winner. Unable to reach a democratic decision to present the award to a single winner, they joyfully came to a consensus to ignore the rule and split the prize anyway, much to the chagrin of Gaby Wood, the literary director of the foundation.
By reshaping the prize for the two authors that seemed indispensable to that literary moment, the 2019 committee demonstrated exactly how prizes like the Booker should function. What is needed from literature is always going to be in constant flux, and it is important that this flux is accommodated by the awarding bodies of foundations such as the Booker.
A new judging committee headed by Maya Jasanoff have selected their top picks for 2021, incidentally sharing the same view as LMR of the wonderful Great Circle by Margaret Shipstead. There has so far been very little stir in response to the shortlist which seems to have been quite easily accepted, but it will be interesting to see if this meek response continues through to the announcement of the winner on the third of November. Either way the value placed by the judges on these texts leaves me inclined to see what it is about those particular books that have led to this committee feeling they should be in the high profile line up.
The LoveMyRead team x