Musings on the Man Booker

posted in: On writing | 12

The Man Booker award has been made, and the winner (Hilary Mantel) will no doubt sell a besquillion copies of her historical novel, Wolf Hall. And to that, all I can say is bully for her. I mean no malice, no sour grapes. I can’t imagine anything I write qualifying for a literary award. As it happens, Mantel’s book is much more likely to attract me than many other previous recipients of the Booker. At least it includes some stellar research and a real story.

It’s interesting, is it not, that books like Twilight, and Harry Potter and The da Vinci Code or (let’s get really silly) Fifty Shades of Grey are never in the running for such awards. I wonder how many people religiously buy the prize winners every year and place them on their bookshelves right next to their copies of James Joyce? In Nazi Germany most houses had a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I wonder how many actually read it?

I can’t help but feel that one of the criteria for selection for prizes like the Booker is density. I was gobsmacked to read that the book favoured to win, Will Self’s Umbrella, was “…a novel with no chapters and few paragraph breaks, and which judges described as both ‘moving and draining'”.

No chapters I can stomach. But few paragraph breaks? Pages of unbroken text? Perhaps, fellow writers, we’re missing something here. Maybe if we ignore all the so-called rules, we’ll win a literary award. Always assuming we can convince an agent, a publisher or an award committee to read our bit of brilliance. It seems to me we have a double standard here. Any ‘ordinary’ book would never get away with it. But say it’s ‘literary fiction’ and it’s open slather. It can be stream of consciousness, no plot, no story, not much grammar. I expect you’d have to spell correctly, though.

Yeah, yeah. I’m a Philistine. I’ve never denied it. I’m also not apologising for my stance. I like books with a story, characters I can connect with. I don’t enjoy the challenge of trying to work out what the hell the book is supposed to be about and I won’t read a book that’s ‘draining’.

What do you think? Please share.

12 Responses

  1. Greta van der Rol

    Interesting point, and maybe it shows up my inadequacy as a reader that I don’t want to have to work too hard to ‘get’ the author’s point. Like most readers, I can forgive a lot, an awful lot, of grammatical errors (for instance) if the story grabs me. It’s down to personal preferences, I guess.

  2. J.S. Colley

    For the judges, I imagine coming across a book that breaks the rules effectively is refreshing. However, I admit to having Wolf Hall in my bookcase but, after reading the first few pages, put it back for a try later. I know where to find it should I get the urge.

    As we writers have often heard, breaking the rules is only an issue if it isn’t done well.

  3. Jo Carroll

    I think it’s just a different sort of prize – for experimental, post-modern novels which many people find hard to engage with. But I’m glad it’s there, if only to encourage the risk-takers to try something new. I enjoyed Wolf Hall (though it did feel a bit like ‘work’) but don’t think I’ll even try Umbrella (having failed with Ulysses, which is the obvious parallel).

    But there are other prizes – the Costa prize, the Orange prize (I think they are looking for a new sponsor), and the Romantic fiction writers and the crime writers have their own prizes – so there are ways to recognise exceptional books in other genres.

    What I do question is the Booker getting publicity at the expense of the others – though I suppose it’s set up to rival the Pullitzer in America, and I struggle with some of those, too.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I don’t have a problem with things like the Nebula Award, which has come up with a ton of great SF. What I object to is the comparative prestige associated with the Booker (and the Pullitzer) as if they are in some way ‘better’.

  4. John Booth

    I have never been a fan of any of the literature awards. It seems to me that access is as important as phrasing. If literary merit excludes massive sales what is it? Within professions another language develops specifically to exclude the plebeians, it is how they separate us from them. Perhaps this is what has happened in literature awards. “Sorry scum, you lack the necessary knowledge to appreciate this work. Run along now and read your ‘popular’ book.”

  5. M. A. McRae (Marj)

    I doubt if it’s worth spending the money to enter a normal book, one that people like. The same as modern art – award the kudos to those works that people loathe, but pretend to like in order to appear educated and cultured. No chapters, dense writing – doesn’t sound like anything I’d like to read.

  6. Sand in My Shoes Reviews

    Amen and amen again. My taste in literature is catholic and eclectic, I read broadly and I do not discriminate by genre. But I find, as do you, that the so-called books-of-literary-merit are stinkers in every sense of the term, most certainly not worth the trees murdered to support the printed page delivering dense, obtuse, pithy, weighty tomes of self-righteous… Ooops, ‘scuse me, this is *your* rant.
    Carry on.

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