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'.
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