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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear