The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

On the readability of the Booker

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel for capturing the Man Booker Prize again with Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to 2009 winner Wolf Hall. In producing a second novel of equal (some say better) quality, and winning the coveted Booker for the second time, she has pulled off something of a Godfather/Godfather II. Although by that reckoning, her third in the series will be rubbish (somehow I doubt it).

Much was made in some corners of the media of a possible backlash against readability this year – Will Self’s Umbrella touted as the impenetrable corrective for literature going too soft.

I saw Will Self at the Cambridge Arts Theatre recently, promoting his book on stage. He did what is best described as slow stand-up, and was incredibly funny. It’s a shame that his joke about dropping a newspaper in Schiphol airport won’t translate – literally – into writing, but he also teased us about the readability of his novel. “It’s piss-easy to read,” he said, “it makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like A La Recherche du Temps Perdu”.

If anything, the opposite appears to be true. He read from the work, with all the voices, and it was a stream of guttural and sensory phrases with a rich texture – but I can’t say I knew for a minute what was happening.

Self insisted on several occasions that all he really does is write things. And that about sums it up. Both he and Mantel write the books that they want to write. Prizes come and go. The award (or not, for the majority) of prizes is part of the great lucky dip of life as a writer. Mantel used to call herself the “veteran of shortlists”. Whilst the Booker in particular boosts sales significantly, she wrote, “prizes are not, or not necessarily, a judgement on the literary merit of your work”. They represent the subjective, and often ego-driven and political opinions of any given year’s judges.

It sounds very boring, but I don’t think there was ever a real story around whether less readable novels would be favoured this year. Newspapers have to write about these things, but the it’s more the case that authors write what they want to, and panels pick what they like.

I haven’t read any of the 2012 shortlist but I gather Bring Up the Bodies, despite sounding like a Carry On title, is as worthy a winner as any. Plus the whole historical story is a sure candidate for Hollywood glory – Cromwell as Corleone – I wonder if Francis Ford Coppola is interested?


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