Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Good Read?

Well, congratulations to Julian Barnes for winning the Booker this year though commiserations for winning it in a year when the literati have deemed the contenders as very poor. The last time I can remember there being such a kerfuffle was when Martin Amis wasn’t nominated for London Fields. If you missed it, the starting point was the alleged poor quality of the shortlist, though we tend to get that every year, but what set the whole thing ablaze was the judges’ statement that their main criteria for making an award would be ‘readability’. Well, with all the fuss this caused they might have well said ‘font used’ or ‘number of chapters’ or whether there’s character called Elspeth or not or how many paragraphs had ‘Ineffably’ as the first word. Not since Caesar burned the library at Alexandria has a cultural elite been so put about.

And the curious thing, of course, is that apparently ‘readable’ has become synonymous with ‘shallow’ or, according to a piece in today’s Guardian, ‘marketable’. We have been here before. One of the reason why Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads made such a stir was that they aimed for readability and accessibility against the high stylisation of 18th century poetry*. George Herbert went to some difficulty to ensure that his poetry would be comprehensible to all of his congregation and Jonathon Swift read out bits of Gulliver’s Travels to passing workmen to ensure that his writing was not too high-falutin’.

*discuss with diagrams, all workings must be shown and the examiners’ articles cited

I blame the Bloomsbury set*. Or maybe the Modernists. Perhaps James Joyce. But it’s become very common to assume that acknowledged classic novels are hard to read and it very often isn’t the case. I shot through Joyce’s Dubliners and found what I’ve read so far of Ulysses easy enough, the fact I didn’t finish it had nothing to do with its alleged difficultness. War & Peace, the ‘hard to read’ poster child of fiction is perfectly easy to read once you get past the first chapter which introduces about every character in a couple of pages and just about all said characters have, of course, Russian names. Meanwhile, my friend and fellow blogger, o**, is currently shooting through Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. For those who are waiting for the film to come out, Clarissa is a breathtakingly long book (1, 500 pages in the current penguin edition) which has the reputation of being unreadable. When the BBC commissioned a couple of Oxbridge academics to do the television adaptation, the joke went round that they were the only people in the country who had actually read it. Well, o is loving it and would find it impossible to put down if only it were possible to lift it in the first place.

*but then I blame the Bloomsbury set for most things up to and including the fact that the 306 bus is almost invariably late on a Sunday. I also blame Brideshead Revisited for most of what’s wrong in early 21st century England. But I digress.

**there’s a story there, I’m sure of it

Alas and alack, I perceive an odour of snobbery here, an assumption that great writing can only be appreciated by a select and if a novel becomes too popular then it cannot logically be much good. Sometimes that may be the case, but I think it is sad that a major criterion on which we designate ‘good writing’ is its failure to readable.

Never mind, Terry Pratchett’s got a new one out, so I’m happy.


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