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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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