The fallacy of "readability"

Why have the Booker judges done such a poor job of accounting for themselves?

Chris Mullin has written a reply to criticism of the Man Booker Prize judging panel in this week's Radio Times. Here it is, with a commentary.

"I hope you choose something readable, this time." That was the most common reaction of friends and acquaintances upon hearing that I was to be a judge of this year's Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Let me hastily add I intend no slur on previous winners or judges. Indeed, past winners have proved very readable. I merely report what was said.

Those opening words, allegedly spoken by a number of people, have been quoted in the press and it has been felt by many that it was both foolish and historically inaccurate for Mullin to endorse them. Here, he attempts to distance himself from the sentiment while giving it another airing. Mullin wants to criticise his critics but nobody else. While insinuating that those friends and acquaintances are on to something, he states baldly that his predecessors mustn't be held responsible. After all, they chose "very readable" books to win. He is correcting a misbalance -- not that there's a misbalance to correct.

And yes, I can also report that all the six novels on this year's shortlist are not only fine pieces of writing, but highly readable, too. Unfortunately, the London literati greeted our shortlist with a great deal of huffing and puffing and accusations of dumbing down. Much was made of the fact that our chairman, Dame Stella Rimington, writes thrillers. One columnist even sniffed that she wouldn't been [sic] surprised to see Jeffrey Archer on the list - before going on to admit that she hadn't actually read the shortlisted books. Not that it prevented her from opining at length.

It's strange that a man who writes "not only fine pieces of writing, but highly readable, too" should be judging a literary prize - as if the aim of Laurence Sterne and John Grisham were not to write something that will give readers pleasure. The implication is that ambitious or challenging writers, by virtue of possessing these qualities, forsake their interest in being readable. But the opposite of readable is not difficult but unreadable, and Mullin cannot expect even his most credulous follower to conclude that any but a very few writers desire to be that. Mullin's rhetoric works hard to disguise a lack of detail and argument: "London literati", "huffing and puffing", "sniffed". In all of his public comments, Mullin has plumped for populist dissent at the expense of straight-shooting clarity.

On the subject of Dame Stella Rimington: if somebody doesn't seem especially well-suited to the task of judging a literary prize, the fact that this person has written some thrillers in retirement isn't all that reassuring. Certainly, the columnist who said that they would be unsurprised to see Jeffrey Archer on the list is misrepresenting the books on this year's shortlist. It isn't the judges' taste that has caused problems so much as their literary principles. Judging the Man Booker Prize involves not just the choosing of 13 and then 6 books but the expression of an ethos.

Much indignation was reserved for the fact that Alan Hollinghurst was "excluded". Excluded, my foot. Actually, he was on the longlist, but didn't make the last six. No shame in that. Mr Hollinghurst, let it be said, has maintained a dignified silence, but the same cannot be said of some of his supporters - several of whom have even alleged that the judges have displayed an anti-gay bias. Phooey. Until our critics started making their mouths go, I had no idea which authors were gay and which were not.

Mullin is right about this talk of exclusion - it presupposes that Hollinghurst, or any author, has a right to be on the shortlist. Claiming ignorance of a writer's sexuality, which is surely unprovable, is a less comforting and reassuring defence than simply to say that it is of no relevance whether the writer is homosexual or not. As it is, he manages to imply that he didn't know - and that was why it didn't matter.

The London literary world is, one suspects, a small place where everyone is one first-name terms. Almost from the outset, we were told who we "must" include. Invariably, they were already famous names, although the quality of their writing varied enormously. One can't help feeling that the indignation which greeted our shortlist was prompted in part by the fact that - with the exception of Julian Barnes - we had failed to follow the advice of those who know best.

Mullin "suspects" wrong. There is no coterie or gang. Jason Cowley, the NS editor, dismissed the "cosy circle" theory a while back, and it's only those in need of a conspiracy theory to deflect criticism who fall back on it. On the subject of back-scratching or log-rolling, I happily admit that I have reviewed writers with whom I am acquainted or even friendly - and in many cases, I hope not to cross their paths again. Given that none of them lives in my flat or shares my office, there is a good deal less chance of this than Mullin supposes. It is insulting to Radio Times readers, of which I am one, that he thinks that they will buy his image of a small, self-serving literary-world, as if he didn't know from a career in parliament that people working within a competitive, to a large extent ego-driven industry are rarely of one mind.

When Mullin writes about "those who know best", he means to be sarcastic, but he raises an interesting question about appreciation. It is too involved to consider here, but literary history shows that certain readers have been able to recognise the value of writers that in time many others came to accept. T S Eliot comes to mind - and in more recent years, Michael Wood, Susan Sontag, and Anatole Broyard.

To take the obvious example: Midnight's Children is now a well-known and well-loved novel. Would a group of ordinary, intelligent readers, in Rimington's phrase, have awarded it the Booker prize? Certainly it fails the test of "readability" in Mullin's sense. It should also be remembered that though common readers have little reading time, they're not as pressed as Man Booker judges. The kind of book one would like to read when one has 137 others to get through may be different than if one has weeks to savour it. Surely a masterpiece would be preferred to something defined by its "readability". An enemy is invoked but never identified. What are these unreadable books people are expected to read? In any case, literature tends not to be exclusive or elitist; great gifts often coexist with popularity. Chris Mullin should consider the example of such authors as Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, Evelyn Waugh, H G Wells, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Greene and Peter Carey, who amply demonstrate that "quality" and "readability" should not be offered in counterpoint.

The problem is not that these judges are invading anyone's territory - and there is no more powerful expression of guilt than to accuse the accuser of parochialism, elitism, territorialism, and so on, naming these crimes and offering nothing in the way of evidence. The problem is that they've done a poor job of accounting for themselves. At the shortlist press conference, Gaby Wood was reduced to giving an exasperated lecture in Aesthetics 101, which would have been an unlikely eventuality if she had been sharing the bench with, say, Ann Wroe, Theo Tait, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Henry Hitchings, Adam Thirlwell, Christopher Ricks, Zadie Smith, Colm Toibin, Simon Schama, Anthony Lane or Stefan Collini to name only a few of the plausible candidates who have not yet judged the Booker Prize, though some of them may well have been approached.

The Man Booker mandate is clear. My fellow judges and I weren't asked to judge writers by their reputations, but by the quality of the work in front of us. Of the 138 submissions, we chose the six that in our opinion are the best. A different panel might have come to a different conclusion. Rest assured, however, they are all fine books.

In leaping from "in our opinion ... the best" to "Rest assured ... they are all fine books", Mullin conflates judgements of value with statements of quality, demonstrating once again why novelists and readers deserved better from this year's Man Booker prize judges.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/REX
Show Hide image

How Paul Giamatti changed the fate of Pinot Noir

The actor's prickly character in Sideways - a film about wine buffs - made us appreciate this tricky grape.

When Paul Giamatti, playing Miles in the 2004 film Sideways, started waxing lyrical about Pinot Noir, he changed his own fate and, surprisingly, that of the grape. It is hard to know which was more unlikely: the sexual interest of the beautiful, wine-loving Maya (Virginia Madsen) in this thin-skinned, temperamental loser, or the world’s heightened interest in this thin-skinned, temperamental grape.

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” Miles growled and, kapow: those patient winemakers suddenly found a bunch of film buffs queuing for their wine. Perhaps it was the character’s description of its flavours as “just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle . . . on the planet”. Perhaps it was the power of celebrity approval.

In fact, the correlation between finicky Miles and finicky Pinot is even closer than the script claims. Miles in California wine country doesn’t behave exactly like Miles back home in San Diego, and that is true of Pinot Noir, too. Everybody marvels at the tiny difference between one Burgundy vineyard and the next: how Pommard’s red wines have such power while those of Volnay next door have more elegance; how a wine such as Armand Rousseau’s Premier Cru Clos St Jacques – so good as to be almost indescribable – can differ in quality from surrounding Gevrey-Chambertins, which aren’t exactly shoddy either.

Perhaps the Sideways audience understood that no two of us are alike. Miles was talking about vulnerability, and the need to feel unique and uniquely cared for. No wonder Maya melted.

Given its variability and responsiveness, the best way to explore Pinot is to try several. So, I lined up bottles and drinkers from three continents and took a world tour without leaving the dinner table.

It seemed unfair to include a great Burgundy name, so I began with David Moreau’s Maranges 2014 from the southernmost part of the Côte d’Or. It had clean, redcurranty flavours but felt too young – trying to taste the terroir was like asking a lost toddler for their address. Still, when we moved on to a purplish Pinot from Bulgaria, a country still suffering the loss of the vast and uncritical Soviet market, the Maranges improved by comparison. We fled to America, where Oregon Pinots, particularly from the Willamette Valley, are much praised and steeply priced. Lemelson Vineyards’ “Thea’s Selection” 2013 was rich but lacked depth; I preferred the wild berries and marzipan of Elizabeth’s Reserve 2012 from Adelsheim Vineyard.

The difference between the two, just six miles apart, was their most interesting aspect, so we assembled another pair of neighbours: Ocean Eight 2012 and Paringa Estate 2013, both from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, separated by a year and four zigzagging miles.

These are beautiful wines, the former full of blackberry, the latter spectacular, perfectly structured and with a scent to dab behind your ears. And here is the paradox of Pinot, which tastes of where it’s grown but is grown everywhere that stubborn individuals can persuade it to fruit.

The Mornington Peninsula is planted with Pinot because its patient winemakers claim their climate is similar to Burgundy’s – which would be hilarious if it weren’t, like Miles’s grandstanding, rather plaintive. This is a spit of land with water on three sides, ten thousand miles from France, as much like the landlocked Côte d’Or as I am like Virginia Madsen, which is to say that there are basic structural similarities but you’ll never mistake one for the other.

Ambition and imagination are qualities we don’t share with the vine – but plant those attributes in the right soil and the results can be delicious.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit