"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Booker Baloney: Chasing the Feelgood Factor

Congratulations to Anne Enright for surprising everyone by winning the Man Booker Prize for fiction last night with The Gathering. Like most people I haven't read this yet but I will rectify the omission forthwith. What struck me, however, were the terms in which this book was described. The chairman of the judges, the economist Sir Howard Davies, described it as "unflinching" and went on to admit it could seem a bit "depressing" and "a little bleak". We have been here before, on a shimmy down Feelgood Close, that little English cul-de-sac where everything must be cosy and comforting and even serious literature must conform to the happy norms of the feelgood culture. I am glad that Anne Enright has been robust in batting back this particular observation, cheerfully stating that of course her book is not comfort reading. If we banned from the bookshops any writing that failed to avoid confronting the harsher aspects of human existence what would we be left with? My message to Howard Davies: we are grown-ups, mate, and we don't need to be protected from the realities of life.

Much has also been made of the poor bookie odds for Enright and the fact that "only" 3000 copies have been sold so far (that will change this morning). Actually, for new British fiction that's not too bad, but what does it mean? Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is said to have sold 100,000. Does that mean it is 33 times better than The Gathering? Er, no. It might actually be 100 times better. Or 700 times worse. These figures prove nothing. There is nothing wrong with large sales figures (to say so would be a kind of snobbery) and equally nothing wrong with small ones. The quality of the work of art is always the only thing that matters. Let's end with a great big steaming platitude: THE NUMBER OF COPIES SOLD OF A BOOK HAS NO RELATIONSHIP WHATSOVER WITH ITS INTRINSIC QUALITY.

Have a nice day!


Andrew Kenneally said...

That's very elitist. Of course the number of books sold is the measure of how good a book is. How else could we know? Money talks, bullshit walks.

Nicholas Murray said...

I don't think it would be possible for me to disagree more vigorously with your assertion. For a serious literary blogger to argue that the only way to assess the quality of a book is to borrow a tape measure and go and see how high the piles are in Asda seems to me a total abdication. My brain hurts! And to brand the oppposite point of view, that what matters is the individual informed judgement of ordinary readers as "elitist" makes the brain vibrate even more. What is wrong with publishing in Britain just now is precisely this surrender to marketing values and we as readers should be challenging it with all our might. Are you seriously suggesting that Danielle Steele is a better and more enriching read than, say, Philip Roth, just because she sells ten times more? Andrew, I can't believe you are saying that. Now if I had argued that BECAUSE a book sold lots of copies it was bad then I could legitimately be accused of elitism but I didn't argue that at all(and I will go and add a sentence now to the post to underline that). You believe in the sanctity of market values ("money talks"). I don't. And to argue that books that don't sell in millions are "bullshit" shows at the very least an ignorance of literary history.

Andrew Kenneally said...

Are you some kind of communist, Nicholas? It's good to see the vigour of your response, but there is the possibility I was being somewhat mischievous.

Nicholas Murray said...

OK, maybe I was being too sharp in my response. I am not a "communist" whatever that means. Are there any left? It sounds such an old-fashioned word. I am just like the vast majority of thinking people who read books: deeply dismayed at what sales and marketing domination is doing to the quality of contemporary writing.

Andrew Kenneally said...

Just to emphasise, my comment was simply a parody of a certain kind of stupid argument, as was the communist comment. As for the broader reasons of why we're living in an age that produces the ethos which naturally dismays you, I've a rahter long piece Materialism is Materialism which tries to explain why things are going in the direction they are.

Nicholas Murray said...

Andrew, my irony detector was obviously on the blink today. Fraternal greetings!

Ms Baroque said...

Ah, well I say pondering but there's not much to ponder - I agree with you!

I read Enright's first novel, "The Wig My Father Wore," and loved it - that was ages ago now. It had all sorts of lively qualities, all interplaying with one another, and her prose was sparky. From what I read today it sounds as if she's matured into a writer people should be buying and reading.

And how great not to have to wake up this morning to a whole load of "Booker Prize goes to Ian McEwen" headlines!

jool lane said...

You can have quality toilet tissue and quality newspapers but is quality the ideal word for good writing such as Anne Enright? Aren't we talking about beauty? If we "ordinary" readers are searching for beauty when selecting fiction then that is going to involve values, and that leads to elitism, which I defend in this context. I noticed a while ago a women's magazine online fiction forum was full of deprecatory remarks about a much publicised novel. These postings appeared to be from "ordinary" readers who were feeling let down and I found it very heartening that the general reader is keen to speak up.

Nicholas Murray said...

I agree, Jool, that evaluations, by definition, are not value-free but the word "elitist" always seems to me to create more trouble than it's worth. How many decent discussions have been brought to a halt by someone shouting "elitist"? I like the approach of the poet Geoffrey Hill (an undeniably complex and difficult poet) who writes in his latest collection: "that which is difficult/preserves democracy; you pay respect/to the intelligence of the citizen". This seems to me spot-on. You respect people by believing that you are not writing over their heads, trusting their skills as readers, and not talking down to them like the anti-elitists always end up doing. And, as you say, individual readers have views which often challenge the consensus and that is what is glorious about reading. It's a great big participatory democracy that has no joining fee.