Monday, March 10, 2008

Opening It Up or Narrowing It Down?

You know me: my heart sank when I opened the Observer on Sunday and there was a double-page spread on the new pony race, the public vote for the best Booker book.

After listing some of its benefits -'the Booker stirs up literary debate and makes people who would otherwise go to bed with a biography or a thriller open a novel, probably by someone they've never heard of' and 'promotes a global readership of British fiction' and has come up with 'an impressive list of winners' - the article's author Robert McCrum concludes that while 'lotteries and literature go ill together' (here, here) ' the Booker probably does more good than harm.' ( I actually typed 'more harm than good' and had to edit it!)

I've expressed my doubts previously as to how far such competitions open up people to literature generally. Geared as publisher's marketing campaigns are to them, don't they rather consist of a narrowing of buyers' and readers' focus to just a few books? And isn't this current exercise, along with the earlier Booker of Bookers, a narrowing of the cultural focus even further, in spite of the reports I've read of the publishers of previous but forgotten winners looking forward to a polishing of the backlists?

Interestingly, in the responses from a selection of interviewed previous judges, there emerge some other pretty powerful arguments against the validity of these kinds of competitions.

David Baddiel (2002): I found just reading those books soul-destroying. Your critical faculties get blunted... (my italics)

Rowan Pelling (2004): It's all a bit unfair because you don't read books in a vacuum. As I was having my little boy halfway through the process, the books I read before I gave birth were clouded by pregnancy, whereas I read The Line of Beauty when I was relaxing on holiday in the south of France.

Simon Armitage (2006): It's a hard slog - almost impossible. You have not much more than six months and at one stage, mathematically, it was a book every day and a half.

Adam Mars-Jones (1995): Books have a natural tempo and there can be a violation if you're making yourself read 60 pages an hour.

And Rowan Pelling again, most tellingly: When we were judging we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged.

And Adam Mars-Jones again, refusing to 'play the game', and telling us instead about the book which didn't win (and about which one wonders if it is still associated with the Booker in the popular mind): The book I genuinely liked best was Taking Apart the Poco Poco by Richard Francis, a family story told in strict equality by two parents, two children and the dog. But I couldn't convince anyone.

Perhaps the most pointed statement comes from the ever down-to-earth DJ Taylor with his eye, like McCrum's, on the paradoxes existing for writers and publishers nowadays:
The thing about serious writing is either it has to be part of the marketing circus or it has to exist in obscurity - there's no middle way.

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