Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Booker longlist

The appearance of so many books by small presses on this year's Booker longlist (below) warms the cockles. In a comment on the Bookseller site Jane Rogers, whose futuristic Testament of Jessie Lamb was published this spring by the tiny Highland Sandstone press, and which now appears on the list, says: 'Until yesterday's longlist announcement, I thought it was likely to sink without trace, since it had only 3 reviews, and was barely visible in bookshops. This longlisting means it will be read.'  Wonderful, when  lately there has been the whiff of sell-out around some prizes, that this year the Booker has operated to allow great writing to triumph over market forces.

There is on the other hand a distinct lack of what one might call 'challenging' writing on the list, ie writing that doesn't fall into recognisable categories - Anne Enright and Ali Smith are conspicuous by their absence - and it has been noted elsewhere that for the first time genre writing makes up a good deal of the list, which last in itself is refreshing, but also indicates perhaps a leaning towards recognisable forms. In fact, I'd say that Jane Rogers, for instance, is a highly innovative writer who pushes the boundaries with voice, but her work is always at the same time admirably accessible, and this time she has gone further and opted for the sci-fi genre. This Booker list, it seems, demonstrates a turning away from writing that wears its challenge on its sleeve, and one wonders how far that reflects moves in the industry in general.

Here's the list:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
• On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
• Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate Books)
• The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
• Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail)
• A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (Oneworld)
• The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)
• Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)
• The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (Seren Books)
• Snowdrops by AD Miller (Atlantic)
• Far to Go by Alison Pick (Headline Review)
• The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press)
• Derby Day by DJ Taylor (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dumber and dumber

Sarah Crown expresses eloquently the reaction of many of us to the shock news that the BBC, sponsor of the National Short Story Award and promoting itself there as 'the world's leading broadcaster of short stories and a staunch and long-time supporter of the form', is to reduce its Radio 4 output to one story a week. It's not so long ago that there was a story every single weekday afternoon, and it's depressing how quickly the contraction has taken place. Goodness knows what's behind the decision - it doesn't seem we need more news or current affairs (which will replace it), and I'd be surprised if the audience for the story slot has dwindled, given the the growing popularity of the form

Do sign the petition set up by author Susie Maguire and Ian Skillicorn, director of National Short Story Week, asking the BBC to reverse such an incomprehensible decision.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Down with the class war

In yesterday's Guardian Susanna Rustin discussed the issue of class in literature, in response to two opposing claims this week: the complaint by author William Nicholson that middle-class people were no longer considered legitimate subjects for literature (although he does qualify his remarks to Rustin), and Scottish writer Alan Warner's identification of a " 'sly, unspoken literary prejudice' against working-class lives and characters".

Honestly, it's enough to make you jump down the rabbit hole - not Rustin's thoughtful article, but this continuing English class war: the prejudices, and/or the perceived prejudices; in any case this whole never-ending and quite frankly Through-the-Looking-Glass English wish to categorise and pigeonhole, and (it seems) wilful blindness to the fact that few of us can truly claim dyed-in-the wool social status. Personally, coming from Wales, where the class system is historically less ingrained - and with ancestors closely related to each other but ranging from farm labourers and servants through shopkeepers to schoolteachers and chapel ministers - I find the whole thing quite confounding, and when I was a young person in England, pretty threatening (I didn't have any group to belong to, and felt subject to the sneers of them all!).

In the novel I've just finished, social mobility and the psychological effects of such categorisation are strong themes. Class is not the only thing confounding the protagonist, but when she is a Welsh child in England as I was, she  wonders about herself and her sister:
What were they, she and Kathy? They were poor, but the rough boys were poorer, and those boys punished Josie and Kathy for being what they called them when they jeered: posh.  So what were they? Poor girls or posh ones..? ...  The girl who sat next to Josie in the big wooden desk, Gillian, was posher ... Josie had been for tea to her house in a leafy older suburb. There were plump furnishings and thick carpets ...  They experienced themselves as strange ... The evening sun tipped away behind the house, tipping away the answers they didn’t ever have when they were asked to account for themselves.