In defence of The Man Booker Prize

K.J. Macleod 23 October 2011

The idea that good books should be enjoyable to read doesn’t seem a contentious one. Enjoyment is a personal construct and naturally tastes differ – and as the success of the Twilight saga has proved, popularity, which presumably follows enjoyment, certainly does not always indicate great writing. Nevertheless, any answer to the question of what makes great literature great could not ignore the role of the reader. The success of any piece of writing is only as great as the response it provokes – as Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the relationship between writer and audience, “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book.”

Even so, the idea that the pleasure a reader takes in good writing could be a sign of its excellence is one that has triggered a veritable smack down in the literary community after the Booker Prize jury chairperson, Dame Stella Rimington, suggested that “readability” was a key factor in the panel’s selection criteria. A storm of indignation followed, with scorn being heaped on the panel, their lack of literary pedigree, and their six choices for the shortlist. In the furore, a new Literature Prize has been launched, backed by the likes of Pat Barker and Jackie Kay. Its spokesperson Andrew Kidd told the BBC that the new prize is “not about attacking the Booker,” but this rather feeble olive branch didn’t stop the Literature Prize organisers slamming the Booker, claiming that it “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.”

The inference is that this year’s buzzword indicates the dumbing-down of the Booker, making it less an award of literary excellence and more of a sales booster for its chosen candidates – a sort of gussied-up academic equivalent of the Richard and Judy book club selection. In making this insinuation, the Booker’s critics display a breath-taking and unpleasant arrogance by suggesting that great literature is or should be too demanding for the average reader.

Although perhaps a clumsily-chosen word which Dame Rimington now certainly regrets, by definition, readability is the ease with which we are able to read a text based on the clarity of the language, which is determined by the skill with which it is employed. Clearly, readable does not mean dumb. Equally, complexity does not great literature make. George Orwell, surely one of the greatest proponents of so-called readability and one the finest British writers of the last century, was passionate about clarity in writing. He advocated brevity and straightforwardness, and none would dispute that his crisp style and lucid prose remain as fresh as ever. As Booker administrator Ion Trewin says in defence of the prize, “literary excellence and readability… go hand in hand.”

Last Sunday’s Guardian editorial ended with the statement that “Book prizes should be about writers, not readers.” I think this is entirely, and very pompously, wrong. To divorce writers and readers like this is to undermine the fundament of literature, that one cannot exist without the other. Book prizes are, and should be, a celebration of the ability of great literature to touch its audience – and a reminder to writers that without the ear, what use is the voice?

K.J. Macleod