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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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution