What the world needs right now, I think we can all agree, is yet another blogpost talking about this year’s Man Booker controversy.
Julian Barnes eventually claimed the prize (and all was ultimately well), but along the way there was a lot of discussion, debate and outrage over the shortlist, which had shed several well-received novels and instead included books many felt were unworthy and, in some cases, downright shit. This is important, as shortlists seem far more important to me than winners. The situation was compounded by some unfortunate comments from the judges regarding readability, the need for the books to “zip along”, etc, which led, naturally, to accusations that the prize was “dumbing down” and that the panel was a bunch of fucking Philistines. People pointed out, probably quite reasonably as it goes, that a “readable” book, whatever that might mean, is not necessarily “great”, whatever that might mean, and also vice versa.
There have also been a number of post-coital discussions over what went wrong. Jeanette Winterson wrote this piece: “Ignore the Booker brouhaha. Readability is no test for literature”. It prompted this response from Graham Joyce: “Don’t confuse ‘readability’ with dumbing down”. In the comments, Joyce has been accused of misrepresenting Winterson’s argument.
Now, when I’m bored I will occasionally jump on passing bandwagons. This is such a time.
So. Misrepresenting. What is Winterson actually saying? Some people have argued that all she’s really saying is ‘readability is not, in itself, sufficient or adequate criteria for literature’. Well, yes. Obviously. You would hope, in a prominently published article, she is saying more than that. More than a truism so ridiculously obvious that few people would bother even to think it, never mind take the time to write it down. I mean, it would be a different story if Jeffery Archer had leaked his way onto the shortlist, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that a novel being page-turning or easily accessible automatically qualifies it as a member of the literary elite. So let’s look at Winterson’s words.
She begins (more or less):
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.
So far so good. I have no major problem with a general distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ (although it’s obviously a false dichotomy; admit it, you lovers of highbrow literature, it’s just your form of entertainment!). But yeah, some books demand (and crucially repay) concentration and study. There is insight in there. There is something that allows you to look at the world anew, etc. It’s why they don’t pick the school reading curriculum at random – and from there on upwards. Readability is neither necessary nor sufficient for literature. I’m with you.
No mention yet of language, by the way, one way or the other.
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?”
Ah. Well, before we come to the language aspect, that’s not a simple test at all, is it? She’s not saying literature makes you think and feel – because any book does that – but that it expands your capacity to. What is that capacity? (Immediately, I’m picturing some kind of transparent, stretchable mind-stomach). More to the point, who is asking that question? If the capacity to think and feel is expandable then it stands to reason some people already have larger capacities than others. Which means the status of a work as literature, according to Winterson, must shift from person to person…
It doesn’t really, of course. This definition of literature is misleading because it’s actually just her view of of what makes a book valuable to her. It’s subjective. In reality, literature is settled on through a combination of time and a kind of intersubjective sieving by various social constructs, of which the Booker longlist is but one part, both receiving from and participating in the whole iterative process. Which is fine, so long as we admit it. In reality, the designation of “literature” is a kind of cultural aggregate by way of certain people’s changing conceptions of quality over time.
If expanding the capacity to think and feel is the important thing, why does Winterson mention “capacity for language”? Firstly, what does she mean by capacity here? It seems at least reasonable to assume she is elevating complex language over simple, because otherwise she could just have said “Does the writing expand…” Capacity is the key word. It doesn’t seem like she’s saying “readability is not enough to elevate, blah blah”; it reads, to me, more like “skill with language”. In other words, “simple readability might be a negative consideration overall”.
Let’s look on for clues as to what she might mean.
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 … 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.
As opposed to numerically-based novels, presumably. The language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. What is the difference between those two things – not as glimpsed, fleetingly, through woolly cloud cover but as facts on the ground?
Presumably, she means that the form the language takes illuminates the subject matter in an appropriate way. But since she’s also claimed that the subject matter of the story is not important, the focus must rest purely on the language. Plot, character, story – by this conception, they don’t really matter at all: so long as the language is appropriate to the subject, it’s literature. In another medium, a photograph of, say, a turd that was appropriately crap would be Art … and so on.
But she can’t mean anything as simple as this. Not only is it “first-page-of-an Aesthetics-textbook” stuff, but it means little, and it does so disingenuously. Lee Child’s sentences are terse, no-nonsense, straight to the point – completely reflecting his protagonist and subject matter. Would she consider The Killing Floor literature, then? Perhaps. You imagine not.
Oh god, look. Winterson’s so clearly talking about poetry of prose and density of language that it hardly bears pointing out. Consider:
Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable”. It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.
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.
She’s talking about language. It’s not primarily about the characters, the plot, the themes, the complexity, even the difficulty of the overall material – it’s primarily about the language. Otherwise why would it matter what version of Shakespeare was being taught? I understand Joyce(G)’s riposte to say that a good book – a great book – does not depend, necessarily, on its use of language but on a myriad other considerations, some of which are more important than a poetic use of language. A simply-written book can be great. It seems to me that Winterson is edging around saying the opposite – perhaps that’s unfair, but if so, it’s only because I’m trying hard to assume she is saying anything worthwhile at all. If she’s simply saying that literature can be hard to read sometimes, and at other times it’s not … well. Honestly.
The overall problem is that these discussions are irrelevant – they’re always inconclusive; they come and go and come back again. I have no argument, ultimately, with Jeanette Winterson. I wish the Booker would admit it was a genre prize – since examples of literature, as I understand the term, can be found within any genre, while the heavy cultural weight of the Booker generally tilts its favour to works of literary fiction – but that’s about it. I don’t, however, think Graham Joyce is misrepresenting Jeanette Winterson’s argument. Her argument is fairly … what’s the word?