The Man Booker prize of 2011 has come, and the Man Booker prize of 2011 has gone. It’s been a Booker season of few surprises. In fact, according The Guardian he bookies at William Hill reported glumly that bets were 6/4 on favourite Julian Barnes, who won.
And it brought all the usual delights of the season, including a fevered debate on whether the Booker does, in fact, Matter. The debate, in case you missed it, centred around this year’s stated bias for “readability,” or what one columnist cleverly called “zipalongability,” rather than the usual bias for experimental audacity. A nice, crisp plot well-told, the judges suggested, was to be favoured over inchoate masses of gorgeous, delicately wrought prose.
The divide is of course spurious. A book is by simple definition “readable,” assuming it contains a grammatical order of mostly known words on the page. Books, after all, are made to be read. Even Chomsky’s famous dictum of non sola grammatia—“Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”—is readable (it just means nothing, we can read it fine). But the decrepitude—even, as I see it, sheer silliness—of this debate didn’t stop the pundits from screaming. But then, not even sudden total disappearance of the Earth would could stop the pundits from screaming. Although in space, thankfully, no one can hear them scream.
Columnists and literary figures harrumphed and grumped about the alleged paucity of the shortlist, and rehashed tired old arguments about some theoretical “lit-fic vs. SF” smackdown. Internet pundits and forum users have pontificated and fumed about supposed judicial incompetence, with widespread agreement that anyone could have done better, and that umpires en masse should be killed. It’s felt, for all the world, like some experimental hybrid of a neighbourhood Oscar Party and watching the World Series with your extended family. Just without the nachos and cheap booze.
Credit must be given where it’s due, so hats off to Guardian columnist Sarah Crown, who had the perspicuity to put the Booker question to the Rising Star of SF, China Miéville, author of the appropriately titled Un Lun Dun. Just about anything Miéville says is going to be tangential to most other things, and is worth hearing. Ms Crown’s delight is evident when she writes that “Miéville made a point that I found so interesting I wanted to disseminate it further.”