I was lucky enough to attend an event at London’s Southbank Centre two weeks ago, listening to excerpts from the six Booker Prize nominees as read by the authors themselves. It was an outing for my book club and it was great fun - none of us had read any of the shortlisted books, but after the readings and the Q&A, debates were sparked.
Literary prizes are interesting beasts - as mentioned in a previous post, I get a bit twitchy when I see a book has been lauded with awards, as my gut reaction is that I will be disappointed (I have been burned more than once in my book consumption by prize winners). I attended an interesting debate at this year’s Battle of Ideas - ‘Bored of the Booker: prizes, prizes, everywhere’ - during which the panel all laughed at the 2011 Booker Prize “readability” uproar, something that seemed to have been actively addressed with the 2012 prize, thanks to more challenging reads making up the shortlist.
One panellist at the debate made the statement that plot is increasingly becoming the most important aspect of any book and this disturbed him greatly, as plot is a form of social control. Apparently. I was too chicken to ask what exactly he meant by such a statement, but I suspect that for this panellist, and often for judging panels on literary prizes, books are to be praised on their construction and the amount of brain power one must expend whilst reading. Enjoyment doesn’t seem to factor at all.
Back to the Booker evening, Will Self, nominee for the 2012 prize with his book Umbrella, made the following claims:
1) He does not write for a particular audience
2) He is disappointed that people are easily put off by difficult books - literature should be difficult
I found it a bit problematic that he lay claim to both these statements - in writing deliberately challenging works of fiction, he is writing for a specific audience, the audience being those who read to be challenged, to think about every word and who aren’t afraid of dense work. He’s also writing for people who want to be able to say, “Yes, I have read a book by Will Self. Who wants to touch me?!”
I have previously tried to read a Will Self book (so I could say “Who wants to touch me?!” obviously) but I didn’t get very far. Even listening to the man himself read an extract from Umbrella, I was utterly lost. I am clearly not going to be part of Will Self’s target reader audience (even if he claims not to have one) and I’m OK with that. If that makes me a lesser reader, then so be it.
Here’s the thing - when I read, I don’t want to be constantly aware of the fact that I am reading. I like to be so absorbed that I forget I am sat in my London flat on a dreary and wet day. Sometimes great plots will do the trick, keeping me guessing and wanting to know what will happen next. Other times it will be characters, compelling me to care and pursue a story to the bitter end. Excessively clever writing techniques and obscure vocabulary only serve to remind me I am reading and that robs me of a lot of enjoyment.
And I can’t finish this post without discussing the Grey-coloured elephant in the room, referenced at both events. Will Self joked that he was writing Forty-seven Shades of Magenta and there was a fair amount of sneering about the success of “mummy porn”. Predictable popularity bashing, given the setting. Fifty Shades is the ultimate example of popular fiction for the literati to sneer at and though the book didn’t work for me as a reader (I read a sample and had to give up, too much lip chewing and repetition) I often end up defending it in debates with friends, as I love seeing rampant enthusiasm for books, even if I don’t share the love, and the book deserves some credit for capturing the level of attention and devotion that Fifty Shades has.
However it was actually a publisher at the ‘Bored of the Booker’ debate who best raised the problem with the success of the book. Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief at Bloomsbury, highlighted that whilst in previous years, books from her stable have seen significant boosts in sales thanks to literary prizes, this year the Fifty Shades phenomenon had a major impact as people are only buying the word-of-mouth “crack” without perusing any other titles. She seemed genuinely sad at this turn of events and I made her a silent promise that I will read Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize earlier this year.
So, to sum up:
1) Literary prizes make me wary of the books being praised, as I feel that my favourite parts of reading (compelling plots - AKA A FORM OF SOCIAL CONTROL - and characters) are the least important factors in play when lavishing awards.
2) I’m too stupid to appreciate Will Self’s books and I am at peace with this fact.
3) There’s room for both Umbrella and Fifty Shades. It’s just a shame when phenomenons choke out other books from the public consciousness.
4) Even though it won a literary prize, I’m going to read Song of Achilles. Who wants to touch me?!