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.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser