The Literary Prize vs. Readability

Yesterday the bookish world, well in the UK at least, seemed all a twitter with the story of a new literary prize, called, erm, The Literature Prize. I am a big fan of any new book prize, both having co-founded one myself and because they promote books which is no bad thing in the current book climate, books need all the pushes they can get. However it seems to be that The Literature Prize has started out with some interesting, if unsettling, intentions and in a blaze of retaliation towards another prize, not the most positive of starts is it.

Books, glorious books, would any of these have won The Literature Prize?

When I jumped on board co-founding the Green Carnation Prize last July it was from a place of positivity. Ok, we did give it the name ‘The Man Fooker’ and it was from a comment of frustration on twitter by Paul Magrs that there was no platform/prize for works by gay men (now we include all LGBT authors) in the UK. Yet we set the prize up in a whirl of excitement and positivity, we didn’t start slagging other book prizes off, we weren’t snide, and we don’t aim to be. We simply wanted to make it happen. We also wanted to be inclusive of all works of literature and their diversity like readers and their reading habits, not just The Literature Prize’s specific aim to “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”. Yet who is setting/deciding the standard? It appears that the answer to that won’t be revealed for another few weeks.

The bit that made me get all the more cross was the snidely aimed “For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.” Firstly that to me sounds like ‘let’s get some press off another prize which is very successful’ (and it has been successful this year there’s a couple of great books on the shortlist and they are selling like hotcakes). Secondly it implies that the judges, people who read are too stupid to understand artistic achievement and so go for dumb down ‘readability’ instead.

Within hours of this announcement there started a raging debate about what the difference is between ‘literary’ and ‘readability’ or if indeed there really is one. I think the two can be mutually compatible. In fact the best books have that mix of being stunningly written, transporting you to another place in time or culture and living with its characters for however long the read takes. I think this can be done whilst making the reader want to do nothing but read that book whether it is plot or prose driven. The reader gives their dedication, time, energy and imagination to the book and the partnership between reader and writer is cemented. A book is designed to be read, learnt from and enjoyed. It shouldn’t be so ‘artistic’ no one can cope with it, unless you are a scholar, which leads me to my next annoyance.

The ‘academy of judges’. Now, if I am being generous I am hoping that my initial ‘you elitist bunch of *****’ reaction is unfair and that actually The Literature Prize will find a diverse ‘lottery’ of judges, not as I fear a bunch of academics who may alienate the common reader (that isn’t meant offensively). I think a perfect panel of judges would be a group of writers, journalists, literature teachers, bloggers, librarians, book group leaders but most importantly ALL avid readers. The main criteria for a book judge should simply be that they love books; they want excellent books to be getting noticed and they want to recommend their favourites to all in sundry.

My final annoyance is that, and apparently it is being currently procured, I bet you this prize gets a stupid amount of money thrown at it. Part of me in all honesty is disheartened because The Green Carnation could do with some for promotion etc, the judges do it all for free, but more importantly what about established prizes like the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize which didn’t happen this year due to  lack of funding and has been doing a wonderful job for decades? That to me seems unfair, but then life is I guess.

There is also the fact reading and readers are changing as they have for decades. Who knew back in the day that a popular romance novelist would become a classic and admitted author, she’s called Jane Austen, I don’t know if any of you have heard of her. Or that a serialised newspaper author or three would become deemed some of the greatest writers of British history, like those guys called Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They wouldn’t have won The Literature Prize if it had been conceived then would they? That said they probably wouldn’t have won the Booker either.

Aren’t we as readers always changing? Don’t our tastes change from book to book? Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I don’t want a book that meanders forever and ever in its own glory and prose and self satisfied nature, I believe that great characters, plots and escapism can be readable and literary, or maybe that’s just my taste. I bet Susan Hill isn’t looking for the same criteria in a book as she judges the Man Booker now as she did in the 1970’s, her reading and its tastes will have evolved even if in subtle or unconscious ways as life changes as it does for all of us. Some of us like to go from an Alan Hollinghurst to an Agatha Christie, from a Charles Dickens to a Stephen King or from David Nicholls to Umberto Eco. That’s the joy of reading, its diversity.

Who knows what the future of the The Literature Prize is, indeed the cynic in me says it could simply be a bit of pre-Booker announcement hype with its shroud of mystery; as with no announcement of who the board is, who is funding it or if indeed it will make its debut in 2012. Hmmm. I wish it luck, should it come to fruition, I think maybe it needs to change the way it holds itself in public in the future though, be less a prize trying to do what another prize already is (and sulking it’s not doing it as it feels it should) and then find its own voice and the ears of all readers out there. It has one thing going for it; it has certainly caused some interesting debate about books, readability and literature.

What are your thoughts on the new prize? Do you think readability and ‘literary merit’ are mutually exclusive, or should the best books have a percentage of both?

28 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

28 responses to “The Literary Prize vs. Readability

  1. Readability and literary merit are not mutually exclusive, but there is a big difference between an enjoyable read and one with literary merit. I love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it should never be considered for a literary prize and I think that is the problem with the Booker prize this year. The books may be enjoyable, entertaining reads, but on the whole they do not contain enough literary merit.

    The Booker prize should be selecting books which will be treasured/studied decades from now, not the best beach read of the season. I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you. I don’t think a panel of random book lovers should judge the Booker/Literary prize (they should judge the other “good reads” prizes). I’d love to see a panel of academics selecting the Booker. Those that teach English will have a far better idea of what constitues literary merit.

    • bookgazing

      Really? I’ve started Half Blood Blues and although I don’t think it’s a Booker winner it certainly contains features often associated with literary works. It makes use of dialect (a previously very experimental literary device that has now become common place). It deals with ‘big issue’ subjects like politics (a common reason why male authored books win lit prizes is that they deal with the big, wide world issues while female authors apparently only deal with the domestic sphere, or politics of the personal – gross idea this may be, but recognisable political content is used to measure literariness). And it uses an alternating, flash back structure, not just a straight linear structure (very common now, but still a departure from the default structure). It also contains a nice turn of phrase. It may not be experimental, but it is undeniably literary.

      And that’s the crux of the problem in these debates about literariness vs readability I think, literary and experimental are two very different part of literature but people conflate them. Something like, oh I don’t know ‘The Still Point’ for example is hardly experimental by todays standards, but it’s undeniably literary. I’d be more than happy to see a prize spring up that only wants to judge only experimental works, but that’s not what The Booker is set up to do, it’s there to judge all works that can be classified as literary and literary is a very broad church including works of experimental structure, works that use a very typical structure but include deep lines of thought, genre bending books, books written without vowels….on and on and on. It’s also one one level, very subjective, our perception of literariness, which is why there’s always so much uproar surrounding what gets included.

  2. I think it’s called The Literature Prize? Interesting discussion about it all — thanks — I hadn’t heard about it.

  3. Broadly speaking, I view readability as a measure of whether I want to turn the page, and literary merit as a measure of whether a book has ‘substance’. I see them as different dimensions of value, and ideally want books to have both.

  4. Books should, and can, have both readability and literary merit. It is absurd to say otherwise. I’m excited about this prize but I have to agree that it seems to be a very negative way to announce its launch. Why not focus on the positive… The fact that it includes books from any country as long as they’re written in English. I’ve often felt that the exclusion of American fiction in the booker makes it somewhat redundant and most years I’m more interested in the IMPAC shortlist anyway…

  5. I’m afraid I’ll have to agree to disagree with you Jackie. I think we’re going into dangerous territory when we allow only academics (“experts”) to judge what constitutes “good literature”. To be perfectly honest, I don’t completely trust the “experts” who tell us what to read, and how. In my opinion, literary merit can’t only be determined by academics, because that would discount a multitude of independently educated readers. If only academics can make these recommendations, what about those who have not been formally educated? Then we’ve really opened a can of worms! Are we saying that only those “officially” educated can tell us what is literature?
    Simon, although I don’t completely agree with literary prizes, in general, I totally see your logic. Thank you for bringing this subject to my attention. You have definitely given me some food for thought.
    Cheers!

  6. Literary prizes always generate lots of interesting disucssion. For the flip side check out what Salon had to say about the US’s National Book Award — http://bit.ly/puC8Ht . I guess if nothing else awards get people to pick up books and talk about them–even if they don’t always agree. 🙂

  7. Good books really should have both but then what constitutes ‘literary merit’ also seems to change with time. I’m often given to understand that it means something that breaks the mould which is a good enough definition for me. But then others may see it differently. However, I do think it’s important that readers should be able to finish the book however long it may take.

  8. I know plenty of academics who love a bit of genre and enthuse on the readability of their favourite books. So I agree, a book can be both enjoyable and deep.

    I recently loved Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, a recipient of the JRL prize, beautiful prose… So it’s a shame about that prize not having funding this year.

    Also I liked Emma Donaghue’s Room, a Booker shortlistee, and thanks to the prize for bringing it to my attention. But, what a brave choice! It’s prose it’s emotive, the subject matter a little sensationalist, and I would not immediately think of it as literary… But as you rightly point out, those classic pieces of literature you identify can also be classed as sensationalist (especially Collins).

    It will be interesting to see what the new prize actually picks.

  9. lizzysiddal

    Let me throw another cat amongst the pigeons here. I expect a Booker prize winner to last, to become an established classic. Such as Wolf Hall which I adored and could not put down, Midnight’s Children which I loathed and could hardly bear to pick up. Both undeniably brilliant, literary and artistic but at opposite ends of the poll regarding readability … for me.

    Thus I would argue that readability isn’t a criteria for “best literary” novel. I quite like this new criterion of artistry that the Literature Prize heralds and I’m really interested to see how this one plays out. Particularly as it will not exclude American novels.

    P.S I’ve read the entire 2011 Booker shorlist now. I enjoyed them all but honestly there’s only one on the list that I would consider a worthy Booker i.e literary fiction winner. I would be quite happy to see anything else lift a Costa prize, but a Booker? And for that reason I believe this year’s Booker judges have abdicated their responsibility and am not at all surprised by this latest in prize developments. More to follow on my blog on the 18th.

  10. I’ve seen this topic/debate all over the internet yesterday and today and found it quite entertaining in a why-has-everyone-got-their-knickers-in-a-twist kind of way. (Meanwhile, the possible “sell off” of the NHS barely stirred up any kind of debate.) I also think it’s funny that not one person in this “squabble” has defined what they mean by “literary” — I’m not sure that everyone views it the same way.

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  12. Louise

    I think Lollipop made some good points. I don’t agree that only people with letters after their name have the right to judge a prize, or tell us what we should and shouldn’t read.
    I very rarely follow the Booker prize. I think it tends to be stuffy and the books in these lists can’t be enjoyed by everyone. This year I was surprised by the books making the shortlist, the books seemed a lot more relaxed and I feel they could be enjoyed by a wider audience, especially Jamrachs Menagerie. (I hope it wins)
    Readability comes first for me. I like books to take me to another time and place.I want to connect with characters and have them pop off the page, I want a book to make me turn the pages. If I can’t get this escapism from a book, why would I continue reading it? I do enjoy books that have a certain amount of literary merit, but they must be readable and the trouble with the Booker, for me, is sometimes they can be overly literary and tiresome. I think I saw someone say that Booker winners should be classics, treasured for the future etc well what makes something a classic? Look at Harry Potter, I was living and breathing Hogwarts for the week that I read the series, I even had dreams of it, I couldn’t put these books down and it was hard to focus on other things. I was truly taken somewhere else by these books. These books have changed the way adults and children read and think about books, in some ways Harry Potter has changed the reading world. These books don’t define literary merit, but they are something else entirely and I think they will stand the test of time, and be read by millions in the future, does this make them a classic? Would I read Harry Potter over something as tiresome and gruelling as Pigeon English…yes. Before the books snobs get on my back 😉 I have read Austin, Bronte and Dickens 🙂

  13. gaskella

    I like David H’s definitions. Readability alone is not enough. Like Lizzie, I would expect a prize-winning book to have substance, and to be well-written – even if in a more experimental style.

    Re judges – as long as they’re avid readers of well-written books, I really don’t mind who does it. I would hope for a balance of academics, book trade, authors, readers etc in the panel though, so different styles of reader are involved.

  14. Literary prizes are like art prizes, completely subjective. Who has the qualifications to declare one piece of art ‘better’ or more worthy than another? Although awards are interesting and thought provoking (and long may they continue) they are not really a barometer on excellence because the results are only the view of a handful of people.

  15. I came to comment but then read the other comments and have totally lost my ability to form an opinion on this one! I agree that there should be prizes — to bring visibility to books of high quality for whatever reason. I agree that the way to promote anything is not to denigrate something else. And I agree that readability and literary value are not mutually exclusive. But who should be the deciders and what “literary” means, I’m just not sure. Maybe they will get it right with The Literature Prize and maybe they won’t. I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

  16. After thought of our discussion on twitter the other night I decide to abstain from any more comment on booker prize as I felt my view was obviously considered wrong by the majority of people great post alm the best stu

  17. I wrote about this argument too, and my main point was that the whole concept of readability is way too subjective to be used as a measuring device. Everyone thinks they know what readable means, and it just means the books they like reading. I find Susan Hill unreadable because she is sadistic to the reader, and I have a friend who only really likes experimental fiction and can’t tolerate much else. It’s just a really subjective call.

    You put a good argument together, Simon, only why must academics be blamed for all the ills in the book world? The arguments I saw happening over the internet had no academics in that I knew of. I’m an academic and I love all sorts of books, genre as well as classic. I always feel it’s academics who come off worst at the moment and get lumped together in one bit homogenous group. Think of us as an ethnic minority! 🙂

  18. I completely agree with you. Readability and artistic merit being mutually exclusive is a trope that keeps getting trotted out and yet blatantly isn’t true. It’s repetition of that lie that scares people off reading the classics or indeed winners of the Booker Prize. Some literary works can be tough reads, but not all. And it’s all, after all, subjective.

  19. Hello Simon

    “I think a perfect panel of judges would be a group of writers, journalists, literature teachers, bloggers, librarians, book group leaders …”

    No scientists or artists in your view of perfection? Not that there have to be but despite the fact that some of us read avidly very rarely do they tend to appear in such lists. Is that a strength or a weakness. I always wonder.

  20. I might do a post on this soon, Simon, because it’s a really interesting question… I think I actually would support this new prize. Not to overshadow others, but as a complimentary one – I think great literary texts of a period probably won’t be the ones which are great popular reads. There are a lot in between the two, which are good literature and good reads, and the Booker probably usually covers those, but it does leave the uber-experimental, avant-garde literature out in the cold.

    I’ve been researching a lot about the 1920s and ’30s and what was considered great literature then, lots on the minority making decisions about excellence, and I instinctively leap away from that – but mostly because they were saying everything else was awful. I think there’s room for a prize for excellent literature *for* a highbrow minority, so long as it doesn’t come with the caveat that everything else being written is dreadful.

    As you can see, I haven’t really made my mind up on this!

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  22. I can’t answer you all individually but thank you so so so much for your thoughts. I am going to try and answer a few people where I can but it’s very interesting to see this debate and all your thoughts!

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