Readersforum's Blog

October 28, 2011

In praise of easy reads

Nice and easy … Patrick McGrath at home in Ibiza. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

It might not be the right way to judge the Booker, but readability is something we all crave from time to time, and the books don’t need to be bad.

By John Self

To be zinged by the literary establishment twice in one week is a special kind of privilege. I didn’t see Stella Rimington’s now-legendary Man Booker prize speech – in my defence, I was trying in vain to rock a two-week-old baby to sleep – but someone mentioned later that she had attacked unnamed critics for “writing lists of books you would have chosen if you had been the sole judge”. Goodness, I wondered: could she mean me? Then, a few days ago, Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate and founder of World Book Night, issued a blunter response to my comment that the list of next year’s World Book Night books was tilted heavily in favour of authors who already have very large readerships.

Byng was right to criticise me, I think: World Book Night is about readers, not authors. (And presumably big sellers are more likely to be in a position to waive their royalties.) It is aimed at getting books into the hands of people who wouldn’t pick them up otherwise, and those who are selected to distribute books are told explicitly that their books are to be given to “non or light readers” – though tips for identifying them are not provided. So the fame or otherwise of the author is not important, but the type of book is. And this of course fits in neatly with The Booker Kerfuffle (to name it in the style of a Robert Ludlum novel).

The common thread is that much-maligned (by me, among others) word: “readability”. If we accept what the Booker judges didn’t, quite, and say that it essentially means “not too hard going”, then it’s not much of a measure for a literary prize, but it’s more or less essential if you’re aiming to give books to people who don’t normally read. There are very good books on the World Book Night list, from Iain M Banks’s The Player of Games – my own favourite of his novels – to Andrea Levy’s sublime Small Island, which marry quality with approachability.

But you don’t have to be a reluctant reader to be attracted sometimes to something that slips down effortlessly. “I have never been able to finish a novel by Kafka,” said Martin Amis. “But then, neither could Kafka.

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October 26, 2011

Man Booker Prize 2011: seven months to read 138 novels

One person's 'European novel' was another's 'self-indulgent twaddle': Man Booker judges Susan Hill, Chris Mullin, Stella Rimington, Matthew d’Ancona and Gaby Wood, with the six shortlisted works

For Telegraph Head of Books Gaby Wood, judging this year’s Man Booker Prize, awarded on Tuesday to Julian Barnes, was an honour – and a marathon too. Here she looks back at a year of aching eyes, intense debate and moments of raw reading pleasure.

By Gaby Wood

In June 2010, Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prizes, emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d consider being on the jury of the 2011 prize. He made no effort to disguise the amount of work involved: 2010’s judges, he said, had read 125 books in just over half a year. At that point, I had been at the Telegraph, and living in this country, for a total of three months. I could think of few things less convenient than reading 125 novels.

I said yes.

Later, almost all of the advice passed on from former judges concerned volume. “Stand with your back to the kitchen counter, and put the sharpest knife you have on the edge of it,” said one. “Keep reading, and if you start to fall asleep, you’ll get stabbed in the bum.”

“Is that when you decide the book’s too boring to win?” I asked.

“No. That’s how you make yourself keep going!”

As it turned out, there weren’t 125 books. There were 138.

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October 23, 2011

Ignore the Booker brouhaha. Readability is no test for literature

Authors on the Booker prize shortlist: left to right, Carol Birch, Stephen Kelman, Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan and A. Miller. Photograph: Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage

The Booker prize judges misunderstand literature and its purpose. Would they blame maths for being difficult?

By Jeanette Winterson

The Booker Best Pony in Show row is an annual event that at least lifts novels off the books pages and into the public debate. This year’s fight about readability tempts me to set up a new publishing house, funded by Sir Stelios. EasyBook could recruit the chair of the Booker judges, Stella Rimington, as CEO and offer a no-frills novel-reading experience that goes from A to B and does not tax the brain.

Nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of entertaining reads that are part of the enjoyment of life. That doesn’t make them literature. There is a simple test: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?”

Subject matter is not the point. It might be socially relevant, or it might not. It might be historical, science fiction, a love story, a crime novel, a meditation in fragments. There is no point judging a novel by its subject matter; what is in vogue now will be out of date soon. Nobody reads Jane Austen because we want her advice on marriage. And we don’t care that she lived right through the Napoleonic wars and never mentioned them once. Who cares about the Napoleonic wars now?

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

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October 20, 2011

Applause and dissent at the Booker Prize dinner

Julian Barnes (right) is congratulated as he is announced as the winner of the Man Booker prize at the Guildhall Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The Man Booker dinner is the most sought-after ticket in the literary world. Sameer Rahim reports from the evening when Julian Barnes finally won the prize.


The Man Booker dinner is the most sought after ticket in the books calendar. Last night former winners like Howard Jacobson and Kazuo Ishiguro rubbed shoulders with the actor John Hurt and the BBC’s Alan Yentob. Yet while literary London used it as an opportunity to catch up (“Darling, we must have cocktails next week” – I swear that is a direct quote) the nominated authors were quietly sweating in their tuxedos or dresses.

All the talk was about whether this year’s prize had lost its traditional highbrow status. The tables at the front end of the Guildhall, where the nominated authors sat with their publishers, didn’t think so – though there was some muttering from the authors and agents further back, whose friends and clients the judges had ignored.

Oddly enough even people with strong opinions seemed not to have read the whole shortlist – or even much of it. More than one person told me that apart from Julian Barnes, Patrick deWitt and Carol Birch they hadn’t found much to interest them. Either this shows how little excitement the shortlist has provoked or as Stella Rimington, the chairman of the judges, has argued, it shows up the narrowness of “so-called literary critics” and their ilk.

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October 12, 2011

Stella Rimington: ‘Weirder people than me have chaired the Booker’

'It's pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me' … Stella Rimington. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Since Stella Rimington and her fellow Man Booker prize judges announced their shortlist, they have been savaged by the literary establishment. Here the former MI5 chief turned thriller writer bites back.

By Stuart Jeffries

‘What I cannot tolerate is personal abuse,” says Dame Stella Rimington, fixing me with the piercing green eyes that made Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky come over all unnecessary during the cold war.

The former MI5 chief turned spy-thriller writer and Man Booker prize jury chairman who, for the last hour, has been a study in question-deflating diplomacy, is angry. “As somebody interested in literary criticism [her degree from Edinburgh was in English literature], it’s pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me. They live in such an insular world they can’t stand their domain being intruded upon.”

It’s hard to understand why she’s so cross – surely hissed denunciations, counter-denunciations and deals done behind closed doors during her 40-year career as a spy were ideal training for judging Britain’s leading literary prize. And surely the media flaying of Booker judges’ credentials is such an annual ritual that no one with a thick skin would be troubled by it.

Rimington is responding to headlines such as: “This year’s Booker judges don’t inspire confidence” and “Booker prize crisis”. The furore started last month when she announced the shortlist of six for the Booker, whose winner will be announced on 18 October. What kind of barbarians, critics fumed, could have omitted Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child? It was the critics’ favourite and, more significantly, William Hill’s. What was she thinking of?

“We didn’t choose it,” shrugs Rimington. “I got called homophobic for not choosing Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher [whose King of the Badgers also didn’t make the cut]. I didn’t know Hensher was homosexual and if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”

Rimington was savaged thus by New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer, Leo Robson: “An able and intelligent woman – but you wouldn’t ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington’s status as a novelist doesn’t much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight’s Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late it Was, How Late?”

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September 7, 2011

Booker prize 2011 shortlist drops Hollinghurst in favour of first-timers

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Two debut novelists have made the final six in contention for the award, ahead of widely-tipped former winner

By Alison Flood

Alan Hollinghurst’s highly-praised novel The Stranger’s Child has missed out on a place on the Man Booker prize shortlist, with the former Booker winner trumped by two debut novelists.

One of the favourites to take this year’s award, Hollinghurst’s story of a bisexual poet killed during the first world war, was passed over by the judges. The panel, headed by former MI5 director Dame Stella Rimington, preferred Guardian First Book Award-longlisted Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor and written in the voice of a Ghanaian 11-year-old, and former journalist-turned-debut novelist AD Miller’s crime story set in Moscow, Snowdrops.

They also gave Julian Barnes, who has been shortlisted three times for the Booker but never won it, a fourth chance, this time for his 150-page novella The Sense of an Ending, about a middle-aged man looking back at his student days. Although he has described the Booker as “posh bingo” in the past, Barnes has been William Hill’s 3/1 favourite to win the prize, ahead of Hollinghurst at 5/1 and Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and Miller’s Snowdrops, both at 7/1. Birch’s 11th novel, a 19th century-set story of a doomed expedition to the South Pacific to capture a “dragon”, also made the shortlist.

“Inevitably it was hard to whittle down the longlist to six titles,” said Rimington. “We were sorry to lose some great books. But, when push came to shove, we quickly agreed that these six very different titles were the best.”

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