Sunday 22 January 2017

'Readability' is important -- but it shouldn't define a novel

Published 17/09/2011 | 05:00

Announcing their shortlist, this year's Man Booker Prize judges revealed the radical new criterion that they brought to their decision-making -- readability.

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Announcing the list, retired spy and current judging chairman Stella Rimington summed up the panel's brief: "We were looking for enjoyable books. We wanted people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them."

Leaving aside the question of how one can admire a book without first having read it, I'm with Stella all the way in her noble mission to make the reading of books more appealing to the general public, and if it means fewer prizewinners as turgid as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or as interminable as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, so much the better.

But readability is a dangerously vague concept. Few people would deny that, on one level, a Lee Child thriller is more "readable"than, say, an Anne Enright or Ian McEwan novel, but that doesn't mean Lee Child's ingenuity should be honoured with the kind of accolades it plainly doesn't deserve.

Whether any of the six books shortlisted by Ms Rimington and her colleagues merits such accolades I can't say as I haven't read any of them and hadn't heard of most of them.

But veteran novelist Paul Bailey, offering his tuppenceworth in the Guardian, doesn't think much of a list he deems to be "the most eccentric in recent years".

Readability, in his view, suggests a book that "can be read instantly and never picked up again", whereas he's happy for books to be demanding, given that "art of the highest order invariably makes demands on the reader, listener or spectator".

I'm with him there (though not when it comes to Wolf Hall or Life of Pi), but only a gay writer could find it "odd" that the shortlist features nothing by "avowedly gay authors".

What's odd about that? After all, neither is there anything on the shortlist by avowedly transsexual writers, not to mention self-confessed Muslims, Marxists or 47-year-old residents of Birmingham.

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