Sunday, October 16, 2011

But what do we MEAN by readability?

It's a pity, as Vanessa Gebbie commented on a recent post here, that this year's Booker judges didn't say what they meant by 'readability' when they announced that it was their main criterion, as some of the ensuing discussion seems to have wobbled on cross purposes. However, several of their comments give some indication.

Chris Mullin announced that he wanted books that 'zipped along'. Both he, in a Radio Times article answering criticism and torn to shreds by the New Statesman's Leo Robson, and Chair of the judges Stella Rimington have spoken as if, in championing 'readability', they were setting themselves up against a literary establishment for which such a quality would be anathema. There is contempt in Mullin's reference to 'London literati' 'huffing and puffing' about the matter and sarcasm in his description of them as 'those who know best'. At one point, as I remember, Rimington told The Guardian that the judges were looking for books that people would read rather than admire. There has been a chorus of protest from serious literary practitioners that, actually, no one advocates unreadability; the judges, Leo Robson comments, are striking at an enemy that doesn't exist: readability, it seems universally agreed, is a quality that makes for great literature.

All of this needs unpacking. Rimington's statement implies that books admired by the literary establishment are not in fact much read. Possibly in response to Robson's call for proof of this, judge Susan Hill tweeted last week a list of classic books which she finds 'unreadable', beginning with James Joyce's formally and linguistically innovative Ulysses and including War and Peace and Woolf's The Waves. Now it has to be said that only last week a serious literary thinker and innovator of the stature of Will Self commented that nowadays hardly anyone reads Ulysses. The judges are onto a certain contemporary truth which it would be foolish to deny, and which Self characterises thus: '...the novel, instead of moving on, lies there in the dark summoning up past pleasures while playing with itself in a masturbatory orgy of populism'.

An argument which accepts the simple terms of 'readability' versus 'unreadability' seems to me to sidestep the real issue: it accepts books as fixed by one or the other of two immutable (opposed) characteristics. But this is clearly nonsense. We all like different books. Books some of us find boring others don't. A book I might find difficult to read you perhaps won't. Reading is a dynamic process in which a complex array of things come into play: the reader's taste, mood, expectation and, above all, education - by which I don't mean formal schooling but cultural immersion. We can learn to like and understand books or the kinds of books we may not previously have liked or understood. Of course there are different kinds of books: we can also read in different ways, simply for enjoyment and comfort or to be challenged and made to think and have our perceptions overturned, and different books cater for those different experiences.

And this last, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter. By 'readability' I and I think many commentators really mean 'the power to engage'. And the books that have the power to engage me are indeed those that are challenging (linguistically, structurally, morally and politically etc): I like to be made to think, I like to have my perceptions overturned, I am thrilled by writers doing interesting things with language. I am dissatisfied by books that fail to do these things (and which happen to be the books that sell best) - actually, I find them unreadable - and I don't think it makes me the snob Mullin and Rimington imply. I'm doing exactly the same as those people who like mass market fiction in that I'm reading books I enjoy.

I don't think that Mullin with his search for books that 'zip' along, Rimington or Hill (if her tweets aren't ironic) mean this kind of engagement, however.  The implication is that by 'readability' they mean the other readerly impulse - the need to let a book wash over you, to read passively rather than actively, to not be challenged. But isn't it the role of literary arbiters and taste makers - and what else are Booker prize judges? - to do more than endorse this kind of reading, thus fuelling Self's 'orgy of populism' (leave alone to avoid casting aspersions on the other kind)? As Leo Robson says, 'literary history shows that certain readers have been able to recognise the value of writers that in time many others came to accept'. But as Alex Clark puts it in today's Observer: 'the problem is that this year's hoo-ha suggests that the Booker is happy to be seen as a marketing strategy than as an exercise – however flawed – in choosing and celebrating literary and artistic achievement'.


Sue Guiney said...

I was composing a comment in my head while reading, and then came along the last line of your blog. It does seem to me that the Booker and many other big name prizes are now just vehicles for the big publishing houses that generally only publish "easy" or zippy reads. Of course that's what sells the most, but to think that the rest of fiction isn't important, or to say, once again, that the novel is dead or irrelevant is nonsense. The language and the culture move forward because of the variety of uses and approaches -- both in style and idea. I do get tired of the incessant complaints though -- especially by those who are among the few to make a good living from their supposedly moribund novels. Can't we all just write what we want to the best of our ability and read what we want for whatever our personal reasons are?

Sally Zigmond said...

For what it's worth, this year's short-list is the first of which I have not been tempted to read any of the contenders. Having said that I have read two that were long-listed.

As you said, reading is a personal past-time. Novels I have adored, others consider otherwise and vice versa. I am delighted when a novel I have enjoyed hugely wins one prize or another but I wish judges would just choose a book because the majority of those on the panel enjoyed the experience not because they have an 'agenda' or a point to make.

And I, too, tend to be suspicious of any novel that 'zips' along because, like you,that implies superficiality.

nmj said...

I downloaded samples of all six books when the shortlist was announced but have not yet sampled any. After watching The Review Show on Friday I thought the Patrick deWitts seemed like the most interesting. I have followed the scuffle over the ‘dumbing down’ only a little, and my thoughts are that at a certain point the debate becomes almost parodic.

The winner will win, his/her novel will be lauded left right and centre – whether deserved or not - and the world won’t stop turning.

The furore will all die down again until next year.

I enjoyed Alex Clark’s article, though she seems to be arguing that the shortlist isn’t actually dumbed down, it’s more the commentary of the judges.

Still, at the end of the day judging of good literature is not a science, it is an opinion.

No one can prove that the result is right or wrong!

But I would be very wary of a book chosen for the Booker because it ‘zips along’.

And I agree the nebulousness of term ‘readability’ has put the cat amongst the pigeons - readability somehow suggesting it’s easily digestible, a beach book.

Or crap.

But all books should readable, otherwise what is the point?

As others are saying a book can be readable *and* challenging.

Dan Holloway said...

"But isn't it the role of literary arbiters and taste makers - and what else are Booker prize judges? - to do more than endorse this kind of reading"
I think this will always be difficult as long as the submission process remains as it is, and as long as the price for submission is so high. We are hearing a lot about the sales of shortlisted books this year, and the cynic in me wonders if the choice of saleable books is a bid to demonstrate to smaller presses that it *is* possible to earn back the fee for shortlisting, something that hasn't really happened in general.

I too would like to see more championing - my understanding is that the judges can call books in, and I'd like to see more of that, but I'd like to see more championing in general - the literary world just doesn't have the kind of impresario figures the art world does - there just isn't a Jay Jopling of the literary world. And there needs to be.

Elizabeth Baines said...

nmj: yes, it is about the judges' commentary rather than the books themselves on the shortlist. But the attitude implied in that commentary is surely significant, as they are using the platform to make pronouncements about literature that are potentially influential. And the books on the list come to be seen in the light of their pronouncements, so in a way it is about the books after all, and commentators are right to point out their merits.

Dan: Funnily enough, I was thinking the same myself this weekend. There really are no impresarios left in the serious lit world, people like the more-or-less retired John Calder who championed cutting-edge books that would never have made it elsewhere, but have become acknowledged clasics.

nmj said...

It seems to be all about a dissatisfaction with the 'calibre' of the judges and their pronouncements.

Who exactly chooses the judges?

Is it not then they that are to blame?

Once the judges are actually chosen you can't exactly complain because they are not making the 'correct' pronouncements!

Still, it is about the books and I had honestly not heard of four of these books 'til the shortlist came out, so they have come to my attention now and I will make up my own mind about whether I want to read them and whether they are any good or not.

And the ones that did not make the shortlist - but should have!- are already getting plenty of attention.

So if it is about spreading the word about books that are worth reading then that has already been done.

But there are always going to be books left in the margins that should have got more attention.

And even the most literary, 'worthy' winner is not going to be to everyone's taste.

I guess I cannot get too upset about it.

It is not like pre-internet times where you may be in the dark about more obscure titles, those are now at our fingertips.

nmj said...

Just saw this!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh, thanks for that, Nasim!