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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge