Sep 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Booker Shortlist

He sang ‘The more I know, the less I understand’. That seems to be my story as well. So many issues/matters I find myself sitting on the fence, unable to make up my mind. There’s a mini controversy brewing over the choice of the Booker shortlist for this year & once again, I find myself unable to take sides with any real conviction.

Ever since the judges of this year’s Booker committee announced the shortlist on Sep 6 with those fateful words, “We are looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books”, a sort of literary outrage has engulfed readers and book enthusiasts across the world. Most are unhappy with the shortlist, perplexed by the exclusion of such authors as Edward St Aubyn, Hollinghurst, and Anne Enright from this year’s shortlist. Of the 6 shortlisted entries -  Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, AD Miller's Snowdrops, Carol Birch's Jamrach’s Menagerie, Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, Patrick De Witt's The Sisters Brothers and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English - I’ve read only two (no. 1 & 5). I definitely don’t think this is Barnes’ best and while the De Witt novel is hugely entertaining and well crafted, I am unsure I’d like to get back to it after a few years, dust it and read it again. Both are good books; I’m afraid they are not great.

Reading forms one of my earliest memories but I still don’t know how I’d define a great book. Perhaps a good book changes something changes something intrinsic about you, and it is a book you gravitate towards over and over again as the years take their toll. Dunno.

Now, coming to the debate: the purists are disturbed because ‘readability’ seems to have scored over literary merit. Thing is, while The God of Small Things or Wolf Hall might carry huge literary merit, not too many people would be willing to traverse its arduous pages. I almost gave up Hillary Mantel halfway through! This means poor book sales for the author and losses for the publisher.

The judges have a choice: either to encourage people to buy, read and enjoy a slightly wider selection of books than they normally would, or to go entirely for what they believe are the most worthy books, even if not too many people are willing to invest in those books. And we all know what happens when we pick up a first book by an author and don’t like it. Enjoyment may seem like a obscene word in literature but it does affect marketability.

Having said that, there is something to be said about the level of literary maturity, taste and personal leanings of a society that cannot be bothered to look beyond ‘enjoyment’, that refuses to engage in a book unless it offers immediate gratification, that rejects books simply because they challenge the mind and the intellect and push the frontiers of the imagination. It is sad for the authors of such books no doubt, but it’s sadder still for society.

As I said earlier, I can’t decide which parameter should hold water. I am a rabid anti-marketing person so can’t really trust my instincts. Nevertheless, a memory lingers – I just couldn’t get through Faulkner’s ‘Sound and the Fury’ the first 2 times I tried. For those of you who haven’t read the novel, the first few chapters don’t  make sense because they are being narrated in first person by Benjy, an adult male who has the mind of a retard. It was a critical text in my optional American Literature paper in MA. Once I’d trudged through the opening chapters, I discovered a dysfunctional world where the basest motives survived alongside the noblest emotions, where beauty and ugliness were woven inseparably. It is one of my favourite novels.

p.s. Formatting nightmare above. Blogger has gone berserk :(

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