For years after leaving university I always read books with a pencil in one hand, underlining “important quotes”, making notes in the margin, highlighting paragraphs that seemed to encapsulate the key themes. Until one day it occurred to me that I probably didn’t need to do this any more. That in fact I was now just reading for pleasure, and it was unlikely that anyone would suddenly say to me: “Beneath the surface disaffection of Eliot’s poetry lies an almost Romantic desire for transcendence. Discuss.”
I felt a bit bereft for a while, not sure how to read if I wasn’t reading in order to answer questions. I worried that I would forget books once I’d finished them; that they wouldn’t leave their mark on me if I didn’t leave my marks in them. And I began to notice how differently we talk and think about books outside of academia. For instance, if a friend asks what a book is about we answer, “It’s about a woman who leaves her husband and goes to Berlin to become a painter,” or, “It’s a murder mystery about two friends on a train.” But for students and reviewers there’s a different meaning to “about”. There, you say: “It’s a book about love, loss and friendship.” Or: “It’s a book about grief and history, about time and forgetting, about the very act of writing.”
Now, after years of reading casually, I find myself back on firmer ground, with a pencil and a notebook, as I take on the role of judge for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Launched in 1996, the annual prize “celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world” and so, with those criteria in mind, I am reading my way through a mountain of novels, mentally marking them out of ten, trying to sort them into piles of Yes and No. My notebook devotes a page to each novel, and already tells a clear story. A Yes on page one, a No on page two; a Definitely Maybe, followed by another two sharp Nos. At this point the character called Doubt arrives in town. Page six has a No with two question marks, page seven a Yes with a row of them. This is going to be harder than I thought.
Already I’m noticing my prejudices, or perhaps just preferences. A sense of irritation with novels where all the main characters are exceptionally beautiful, as if that makes them more interesting. A profound relief whenever the opening pages reveal a sense of humour, or at least the presence of wit. A dislike of certain terms that recur in cover blurbs – the word “haunting” now fills me with dismay.
Above all, I’m determined to take this seriously, because it is no small thing to win an award, and I say this from my vantage point of experience, having never won anything at all. Well, that’s not strictly true. In 1984 I won the City Limits magazine Best Female Singer award. I still have it, in a box in a cupboard at home – a six-inch garden gnome holding a tiny placard bearing my name. I was thrilled, thinking that was just the beginning, when in fact it was the end of my award-winning run.
This hasn’t caused me any undue angst. I console myself with the thought that awards aren’t everything, though my favourite acceptance speech is that of Kingsley Amis on winning the Booker: “Until just now I had thought the Booker Prize a rather trivial, showbizzy caper, but now I consider it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit.” That made me laugh out loud, and I imagine it is precisely how those of us who pretend not to care would feel if we actually found ourselves up on the stage, cradling some sort of little statue.
So, with this in mind, I am committed to doing this properly, and what a joy it is, being given an excuse to read books non-stop. Do not disturb me, for I am working, here in my armchair, doing extremely important reading. You remember that lovely scene in Gregory’s Girl, with the headmaster (Chic Murray) merrily playing rinky-tink piano to himself in a quiet room, pausing only to say to a gaping teenager, “Off you go, you small boys.” That will be me, with my books.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister