As we eagerly await the announcement of this year’s Booker prize, I thought we too might ponder the criterion of “readability” upon which this year’s judgement is to be made. (Though I’m not sure this is necessarily the direction the prize is taking eternally hereafter; it is just one jury’s take on it). Now I am going to attempt to defend this criterion against all critical judgement, and I shall defend it by a clever ruse (one very dear to literary critics, in fact): I shall wilfully misinterpret it.
For I too favour books which are readable: unreadable books I have difficulty reading. I leave them unfinished. And what sort of books do I find unreadable? – Usually those which are uninterestingly written, which consist in relating the dull lives of dull people without any particular thought or insight, which haven’t a moment of drama in them (in fact, often wilfully avoid drama: for you can be sure, if anything dramatic has ever happened to any of the characters, it was long ago or off-stage), which choose for their subject the inherently tedious (i.e. everyday life) etc.
Yes, this is the kind of book I find unreadable.
The last winner of the Booker Prize I’ve read is the 1999 winner J M Coetzee’s Disgrace. I read it because it was said to be the greatest novel written in the last 20 years (in English, by a non-American). Perhaps it is, who knows? I can’t immediately think of anything else. But all the same, it’s not much good. Amongst other winners, I’ve tried Graham Swift’s Last Orders (gave up), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (gave up), Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (long ago, short, completed) and William Golding’s Rites of Passage (in fact, I’ve read pretty much all of Golding).
Added to this was my last concerted effort to read contemporary literary fiction (mostly English), which was at the very cusp of this blog’s genesis (not that, I think, geneses have cusps), in which I read 10 books and finished 1 (I kept it quiet at the time, but feel I can admit now the one I finished was by John Banville – dull, but interestingly written). Lost in the ether, I still have the original files for this endeavour, which began to read like some sort of Antartic expedition. This, for instance, is Magnus Mills’ The Scheme for Full Employment:
The life it describes is that every day, tedious life of the working world; and the trouble with describing tedium, is that unless you are very careful you are likely to become tedious yourself. There is far too much aimless, pointless conversation about nothing in particular. The incidental and repetitive detail is becoming tiring. There seems to be no humour in it at all. I am hoping in vain for anything, even to come across the quotation I have already read on the book’s back cover.
Nothing has happened now in 40 pages. Nothing has occurred or particularly been explained. The intrigue by which our sense of anticipation was first aroused, has long since left us. It has become too much effort to overcome the mindnumbing tedium of pressing on in order to find out what is being explained to us. Nothing can be worth this.
This is Jeanette Winterson’s much admired Sexing the Cherry:
As with the previous work, I find myself (at the end of 60 pages) thinking how unengaged I am with the narrative. It has a similar structure to the last novel: an overarching central story-line, interlarded with semi-mythological/folklorish anecdotes. These anecdotes serve to break up any interest the reader might have in the wider story, while at the same time being too short to be engaging on their own account. They are not dramatised enough and become tiresome to trawl through.
Again, there is little coherent meaning to the work. It is just a collage of images, which it is hoped placed in proximity to one another might create a narrative. I am left with no eager expection of what will happen next, since it will inevitably be beyond me. It is like being shown through a room of strange artifacts – at first they are intriguing by their strangeness, but after a time you become bored of such exoticism.
For all the characterisation of the narrators in these last two novels (and, for the purposes of humour, the characterisation in both is fundamentally exaggerated), it is remarkable how unemotional these works are; and consequently, how little investment of emotion they ask of the reader. I am not asking that I must care for these characters (as the common critics have it) – I do not believe I have cared for a literary character in my life. But there is no point in these novels in which I find myself thinking of my own life and how in times past I have suffered similarly. Love has, I feel, treated me cruelly too; so when I read the line “I fell in love once, if love be that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us that they are closed for ever,” I know there should be a feeling of sympathy here; I know that a novel which contains such a line should please me. And yet, because that is all it is, because it is a single line quickly passed over, because the emotion behind it is not dramatised in any way – I feel myself left cold. And even if there are a hundred such phrases in a work of this kind, I will never be other than unenchanted.
This is Don TheDildo’s Cosmopolis:
It is the mundane nature of the style, however, which I find truly tiresome. Much of it is written in the functional manner of any bestselling thriller, short simple sentences: “Torval was standing outside the door. Their eyes did not meet. They went to the elevator and rode to the lobby in silence. He let Torval exit first and check the area,” or, “He felt good. He felt stronger than he had in days, in weeks maybe, or longer. The light was red. He saw Jane Melman on the other side of the avenue, his chief of finance, dressed in jogging shorts and a tank top, moving in a wolverine lope.” This could be selecting from any page of the novel, except those pages where DeLillo finds himself lost in odd dialogues forever hinting at a profundity which is frustratingly absent. The central character is troubled, he cannot sleep, so he is always asking questions like, “where do all these limos go at night?” or, “Why do we still have airports? Why are they called airports?” These are left hanging in the air, as if they are points beyond anyone’s answering.
This is something by Ali Smith:
I’d been looking forward to reading Ali Smith ever since she used the quotation “Remember you must die” at the front of one of her novels and attributed it to Muriel Spark.
This novel apparently won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005. It is an incredibly dull story written from the point of view of a 12 year old. Being a 12 year old, of course she has nothing interesting to say, and is no good at saying it. So we are treated to an endless series of commonplace actions: the girl gets up (pages 8-15), the girl comes down to the kitchen (15-18), she goes out into the garden (18-21), she disturbs her mother who is a writer (a writer? really? in a modern novel?), all described in the usual simple sentences which pass these days for poetry. I’m sorry, I really couldn’t manage 50 pages of this novel. I managed it with Don DeLillo, but this is just too much. The plot seems to be that this girl is on a dull holiday she doesn’t wish to be on. (It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time.)
This is something by the extraordinary writer and critic Julie Myerson:
For a novel written in the first person, it strikes me as strange that the novel is entirely absent of human thought. It is concerned throughout only with appearances and human emotions at their basest level (“There’s Mick, standing lost in the middle of something in the room where he can’t settle or do anything, which is how I feel too”). Nothing is considered or analysed, as if this author does not in any way associate rationality with mankind. My opinion is that, in seeking to portray ordinary people’s lives and how they think, we are presented with the view that they are not reflective or critical at all, and are incapable of disassociating themselves from their immediate senses and instincts – that is to say, we are nothing more than beasts. I am reminded, reading this, of a cat I used to have who, when her brother was killed, hid under the hedge at the bottom of the garden for three days. This is exactly how character react in this novel, without the slightest thought as to why they are hiding under the hedge.
And I haven’t even mentioned Tibor Fischer.
So yes, I would like some more “readable” book to win the Booker Prize, or even be written by someone English, or by anyone in English. Somehow, though, I don’t think it will turn out to be on the Booker Prize short-list.
(With the Prix Goncourt, on the other hand, I’ve tried 13, finished 11, and would suggest 5 are pretty good.)