Just a couple of days ago, Julian Barnes finally took hold of the Man Booker Prize for the 150-page book The Sense of an Ending, seemingly to the delight of most circles, and provided a rather unifying moment after weeks of argument and literary bitch-slapping.
There has been a frightful amount of furore over the Booker prize this year. Apparently the judges decided to favour ‘readability’ over ‘artistic merit’. Well. That’s that then. We may as well award it to Mrs. Mills’ column in The Style from The Sunday Times which is no doubt eminently more ‘readable’ than Pigeon English.
I would love for most contemporary authors to take into account the concept of ‘readability’ (really, Hilary Mantel, did Wolf Hall have to be quite so long?) but that, as far as I understand it, is not what the Booker is about. Julian Barnes doesn’t think so. Andrew Motion certainly doesn’t think so. Most of the staff of The Guardian and the several publishers they interviewed certainly don’t seem to think so. The Booker, rather, is about recognising and rewarding excellence. Salman Rushdie, winner of The Booker of the Bookers, certainly didn’t earn this title through readability. No, Midnight’s Children is something far more wonderful than readable. It’s as complicated and twisting and fantastical as the plots of life, only better written than most people’s seem to be.
The attitude of the judges to the Booker this year puts me in mind largely of all those people who sit down in a literature tutorial on Wuthering Heights and say, “well, I don’t know, I just kind of really like Rochester”. Frankly, I don’t give a damn whether you liked it or not. I don’t care if you thought it was an easy read. If I wanted to know that, I’d just join a book club. I do care, however, that we can appreciate the craft and art of a book, and that we can recognise when such craftsmanship really excels and beats the hell out of everything else in the field. Maybe that’s just me, but that is really the whole point of the Man Booker Prize, and I am glad that despite seeming to veer off the path, the judges have still rewarded an exceedingly well-crafted work. Hats off to Mr. Barnes.