Friday, July 11, 2008

Rushdie Avoids Literary Oblivion

It may seem a bit mean to pick on one hapless original publisher's reader for Midnight's Children (announced yesterday as the winner of the Best of the Bookers), but I can't resist it, and anyway it's a serious matter:

'The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form,' The Guardian tells us he/she reported.

OK, it's a long time ago, and I'm not even sure if publishers have readers any more - by most accounts, nowadays they generally rely on agents to do the reading for them - but in spite of Midnight's Children's phenomenal success (fortunately another reader, Susannah Clapp thought differently, though what if it hadn't fallen into her hands?) - I wonder how many potential works of fiction still founder on the knot of literary prejudice, conservatism, ignorant misconception and illogicality wrapped up in that sentence?

First, the illogicality: what, you master one form by concentrating on another? How does that work, exactly? Ah, I see, because (here's the misconception) short stories are just mini-novels, limbering-up things. I don't know about you, but I think that any reader ignorant enough to believe this about short stories should not be trusted on his/her view of anything much literary, including novels. And so it proves, and here's the lethal conservative prejudice: Rushdie has not 'mastered' the novel form, apparently, because mastering the form here means by definition fulfilling the conventional parameters he specifically set out to flout.

But this tendency - for those judging fiction to look for the recognizable and tried in fiction, and to shun the different and strange - is no longer even a hapless error but is institutionalized by the cult of the market and a cynical ploy.

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