Sunday 17 December 2017

Bookworm - John Boland: Award irony for St Aubyn

John Boland

Edward St Aubyn's latest novel, Lost for Words, has just won this year's Wodehouse prize for comic fiction – an irony that should amuse the author, given that the book casts a mockingly satirical eye on literary awards, the foolish and vain people who compete for them and the charlatans who judge them.

His obvious target is the Man Booker prize – for which he was shortlisted in 2006 when his acclaimed novel, Mother's Milk, lost out to Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss; and for which he wasn't even longlisted in 2011 when his equally acclaimed At Last (the fifth in his series of semi-autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose) had been tipped by many as a worthy winner.

The new book, though, hasn't been getting much praise, least of all from John Banville who, in the current edition of the New York Review of Books, attacks St Aubyn's clichés and "dispiriting" in-jokes before expressing the hope that this "lavishly gifted" writer will produce "much, much finer novels than this one".

Yet Banville is struck by the notion that, in this thinly-veiled onslaught on the Booker, St Aubyn "has either despaired of ever winning it or, by an initiative both cunning and daring, has thrown down a challenge stark enough to give this year's jury sleepless nights".

Banville himself is drily amusing about the Booker, noting that in 2005 "when to everyone's astonishment, including the author's, my novel The Sea won the prize, there arose a great cry of distress and outrage among Britain's literary pundits".

Yet, while "it is easy to deplore and laugh at the Booker", he sees merit in the prize's "remarkable influence", its much-publicised prestige not just helping the winning and shortlisted authors, sales of whose books almost invariably soar, but also adventurous publishers and editors. And above all, Banville points out, "the Booker keeps people reading fiction, or buying it at least".

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