this article from The Christian Science Monitor on Monday, one day prior to the Man Booker Prize winner announcement. Detailed in the piece was the fact that some book world higher-ups were disgusted by what they called "the Booker prize 'now prioritiz[ing] a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement.'" This isn't the first time the Prize has been contested hotly. In fact, the Man Booker Prize website even contains a list of controversies surrounding the Prize by year -- and almost every year is accounted for on said list.
This morning I read an article in the Toronto Star which asks the question: "What's wrong with a readable book?" Their answer -- and mine -- is, in short: nothing. Now, I do believe there might be public outcry if Nicholas Sparks was ever awarded the Man Booker Prize (which would never happen because American authors would have to be included for this to occur). I myself do not particularly enjoy Sparks' novels. Many, many people do. I will say the movies are usually pretty good romantic dramas. (I mean, who hates The Notebook? No one, that's who.) But I don't think anyone out there -- even the most loyal Sparks reader -- would claim that his books were literary accomplishments. They tell stories that people like.
This, however, is not the question. The question is (in my mind): should a book be considered great only if it has no appeal whatsoever to the masses? Dare I say it? In my opinion, great books that are awarded prizes should have two primary factors: one, they should be extraordinarily well-written, and two, they should be readable. What purpose does a novel serve if it is largely unreadable? Are books not written in order to be read? (Perhaps I'm missing something if they are indeed not written for this purpose.) There is no prize (or there shouldn't be) for writing a book that no one enjoys. If unreadable, unenjoyable books are being written and given prizes, I call for a revamping of the standards.
I loathe and disdain literary snob-ism. As someone who has a degree in English: Language and Literature, I ran into literary snobs quite often in my college career. Let me tell you something: they are no smarter and no better than most of the general population. I watched as their literary criticism papers were handed back with less-than-perfect scores. I heard them discuss their scores on the ACT, then the GRE and other grad-level exams. Again, less-than-perfect. A deep devotion to Beowulf or Ulysses does not an intelligent person make. That is not to say there are no intelligent people who love reading difficult literature; of course there are. But in my opinion, readability wins every time. If it cannot be read and enjoyed, what exactly is the purpose of a book?
I tell my students that revising a paper by replacing simple words with thesaurus words in every sentence does not turn a mediocre paper into an excellent paper. It just makes a mediocre paper into a more-difficult-to-read paper. Similarly, writing a book whose only qualities are that it sounds literary and is difficult to read does not mean it should immediately win a prize. The ability to transform the mediocre into the excellent is a gift, in most cases. One which should be rewarded all the more for also being readable.
I have a long list of excellent (and readable) books to dive into this weekend. Right now I'm listening to Tess Gerritsen's The Silent Girl and reading Michael Connelly's upcoming Harry Bosch novel The Drop. I may pick up one of these books if I finish it today:
- Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness
- Mark T. Mustian's The Gendarme
- Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog
- Chelsea Cain's The Night Season
- Charles Frazier's Nightwoods
- Chris Bohjalian's The Night Strangers
Which one do you think I should read next? I'm torn!