Sunday, October 16, 2011


Now here's something I thought I'd never do; I'm going to write a post in defence of the Man Booker prize. And I'm going to do as a reader, not a writer. And … and, he adds gasping for breath through his indignation … and I'm going to do it because I'm sick to death of the intellectual elitism in elements of the publishing industry.

It's this headline I found in the Guardian the other day that got me off:


"The publishing world has launched a rival to the Man Booker Prize, claiming that Britain's foremost literary award has dumbed down beyond recognition.

The organisers of the newly-formed Literature Prze accused the Booker of putting ‘readability’ before artistic merit." [MY ITALICS]

In a swipe at this year’s judging panel, which is chaired by the ex-MI5 chief turned spy novelist Dame Stella Rimington, they announced that their own judges would be experts in the literary field."

Now I admit that for years I stayed away from anything that had Booker Prize written on it. 'Experts in the literary field' had put me off.

Then someone persuaded me to read the 2009 winner, Wolf Hall. Have you seen this book? If you threw it at a cop you could get arrested for assault. It's the size of a small caravan. I thought I'd read a few pages then use it as a doorstop.

But from the first page I couldn't put it down. I read all 650 pages (and author's note and interview) in a week without speed reading or skipping. Okay not everyone liked it because they didn't think there was enough action. No there wasn't; but it was eminently readable. I apologise for being such a prole as to want to enjoy the reading experience. What a dumbass I am.

So what was it that was dumbed down about Hilary Mantel? Because it was historical fiction perhaps? Because she didn't spend a whole page describing a vase?

Sorry, but I would like to take the stand for the defence here. Your Honour, I say being readable is an art form. Being dense and difficult to follow is not.

I think there's a case of the Emperor's New Clothes going on here. Literary fiction is not a higher form of the art, it's just a genre. Some people like word games and dense challenging prose and there's nothing wrong with that. But when you say it's better than other forms you're just staking out the boundaries of intellectual elitism. You're a snob. Let's call it like it is.

Question: was Shakespeare dumbed down? He played to the crowd, he was even popular. He also gave us some of the most beautiful works in the English language, picking up a thirty thousand word vocabulary along the way.

Question: Do I have to understand the arguments about Michelangelo's intentions in creating the Pi├Ęta to be moved by it?

In my view there is nothing finer than readability. If you can be readable and achieve high prose distinction then you're reaching high art. But if you don't attempt to be readable then it's personal indulgence on the printed page. And they have a word for that.

Sorry but have you tried to read The Satanic Verses? I have. I have also seen it on countless bookshelves but have you yet found someone's who's actually finished it? People keep it on their bookshelves to impress people. If the ebook revolution takes off what will we do? Wave our Kindles around on the tube?

The Lauding of Difficulty puts too many people off reading. Books should not be an intellectual exercise but a common ground, the sharing and understanding of our human experience, a universal campfire where we gather to tell our stories.

Not a Mensa puzzle.

I believe our highest literary awards should celebrate what is truly excellent in all genres; not just the best of one genre, like literary fiction.

What do you think? Am I out of order? Feel free to abuse me. Or does intellectual snobbery in some elements of the publishing industry stick in your craw as well? Write in and let me know what you think!


  1. Colin,
    I own no desire to abuse you. I see your point. But I think your argument is just as "elitist" as the "elitists" you challenge, because by way of your definitions you make assumptions, as do we. When it comes to my reading preferences, I am indeed a snob, an elitist if you like.

    Literary fiction may or may not be a "genre," and who cares? Still, writers such as the late Richard Yates wrote literary fiction, and Richard never made endless love to a vase. V.S. Naipaul was not, to my knowledge, a card carrying member of Mensa, but his literary fiction, while no more valid than the latest Harlequin Romance, presents more of an intellectual challenge.

    No, Shakespeare was not "dumbed down," but at least here in the states, most readers prefer the CliffsNotes summaries to the real items, because most readers have lost the willingness -- perhaps the ability, as well -- to let poetry settle in.

    With regard to the Bard, maybe you'd be wiser to ask if his original audiences were composed of snobs who appreciated subtle wit.

    "Word games and dense challenging prose"? Try Raymond Carver's literary short stories (his snobbish wife pared his work down to the proverbial bone before releasing it to the hands, hearts and minds of snobs such as me).

    La Pieta? I saw it first when I was fourteen years old, and I lagged behind my classmates just to stare and try to catch my breath. At that time, I knew no more about Michelangelo than that he was a paisano (just another great Italian soul). Yet, as I stared, I was drawn toward tears.

    So, no. No, you don't need to know -- matter of fact you'll never know -- an artist's intentions -- in order to appreciate art. But the latest bodice ripper is not art. La Pieta is.

    And if you'll pardon the pun (a word game?), it's a pity that the vast majority of today's writers and readers express anti-intellectual attitudes. As well, it's as much a pity that many intellectuals won't admit that the bodices they dream of ripping tempt them to kiss the lock on Heaven's gate.

    And by the way, sir, I have a copy of The Satanic Verses sitting on one of my bookshelves. I finished reading it.

    Get back. Go on with yourself. Enjoy your day.

  2. Personally, you very succinctly stated what I have always felt. Yes, there is a place for literary fiction, but there is a place for genre fiction as well. Books like Ringworld and The Lord of the Rings are just as intelligent and classic as any literary story. Writing a well-torn bodice ripper requires many of the same skills as writing literary fiction, it's just the focus that's different. So, fine, I guess I am a dumbass, too, but I read to be entertained, and honestly I write to entertain, as well. I get tired of feeling perceived as "less than" just because I do. And no, I don't write bodice rippers, but I know fine writers who do!

  3. I think the comment would have read better if I had said "Writing a well told bodice ripper" ;)

  4. There's certainly a place for literary fiction, among the genres offered to the public (although I don't believe Anthony, above, for a moment when he pretends he doesn't mind seeing it categorized as a you?)But I definitely resent strangers 'indulging themselves' on my time. If you're not writing with an eye to the reader's enjoyment, don't expect me to spare you the time...or the dime.