“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Public Wants What The Public Gets: A Booker Prize Jam

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but here’s a couple of snippets from items that have popped up in my inbox over the last day or so. First up, John Connolly (right) from the latest post to his rather excellent blog, the remit of which is to keep his readers abreast on the trials and tribulations of whatever novel he happens to be working on:
“I’m also trying to get a handle on what kind of book THE LOVERS is. In a recent interview, I said that each book I write seems to be a reaction to the one that preceded it, and I suppose that’s true of THE LOVERS. Where THE REAPERS was fast and linear, with a very straightforward narrative, THE LOVERS is more complex, more allusive. A lot of it concerns events that have happened in the past, and a large part of the second half is taken up with one character revealing, over the course of a single evening, the truth behind the death of Parker’s father. I want to see if I can retain the reader’s interest by juggling the desire to find out ‘what happens next’ with gradual revelations about what has gone before.”
  I’ve met John Connolly on a few occasions, and heard him speak publicly about books a couple of times. He is, as most of you know, a very fine stylist, a superb storyteller, and a best-seller to boot. And when John Connolly speaks about writing, the conversation tends to quickly narrow down to one thing: WHAT. THE. READER. WANTS.
  I don’t know if the following pair of snippets should be placed in direct contrast to Connolly’s approach, but both of them are just two examples of what seems to be a growing backlash against the Booker Prize. First, from Wednesday, author James Delingpole in The Telegraph:
“I reckon that, too often, what our literary prize panels confuse with proper writing is in fact just overwriting, and that the problem is exacerbated by a salon of smug, sanctimonious, mostly Left-leaning literary-tastemakers (and gullible book groups) who feel a novel isn’t “valid” unless it’s a) a bit hard to read, b) weighed down with purple prose or poetry, c) socially worthy (madness, disability, child abuse, etc.) and d) best of all, imbued with lashings of fashionable, Zadie-Smith-style, melting-pot ethnic exoticism.”
  Then, today, critic Boyd Tonkin in The Independent:
“Behind the storm-in-a-wineglass feuds that surround the Man Booker Prize, a true and even tragic sub-plot may be starting to unfold. To be mass-market blunt rather than literary-novel elliptical: is the British audience for ambitious fiction dying off, losing faith, or just drifting away? […] In the five weeks after the long-list announcement on 29 July, the 13 titles of the “Booker dozen” sold fewer than 14,000 UK copies; on average, barely 1,000 each. This is, frankly, pathetic.”
  Back at the end of July, the Bookseller published a list of the sales of the newly nominated novels:
1. The Enchantress of Florence 15,433
2. Child 44 8,278
3. Sea of Poppies 5,034
4. Netherland 4,023
5. The Clothes on Their Backs 3,592
6. The White Tiger 1,852
7. The Secret Scripture 1,568
8. A Case of Exploding Mangoes 1,000
9. The Northern Clemency 916
10. A Fraction of the Whole 392
11. The Lost Dog 363
  A week later, they were back with this update:
Whilst Salman Rushdie’s THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE (Cape) remains the overall sales leader with an increase in book sales of 56.5% since last week, Linda Grant’s THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS (Virago) has seen the biggest proportional increase. From selling just 13 copies during the week ending 26th July, the book has gone on to sell 144 copies the following week.
  Another notable increase was for Tom Rob Smith’s CHILD 44 (Simon & Schuster), one of the most controversial choices on the longlist. Sales increased by 250% for the thriller that had already shifted over 8,000 copies prior to the longlist announcement.
  CHILD 44, of course, didn’t made the Booker shortlist announced this week. Neither did THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE or Joseph O’Neill’s NETHERLAND, previously the bookies’ favourites with Ladbrokes and William Hill respectively. Sebastian Barry is now the 2/1 favourite with THE SECRET SCRIPTURE.
  I can’t find any weekly sales figures for later than the week ending August 16, but in that week THE SECRET SCRIPTURE had sold less than THE LOST DOG, which had sold 127 copies that week.
  Erm, folks? Y’think the reading public is trying to tell you something?

4 comments:

Conduit said...

I've had this debate with people when they've complained about blockbuster movies not winning Oscars. While I'm not a fan of Literature with a capital L, I do feel there's a place for rewarding quality over popularity. I've not read any of the novels on the Booker list, so I can't comment on their merits, but isn't popularity its own reward? Given the choice between a few hundred sales and a shiny trophy, or a residency at the top of the bestseller lists and a holiday home in Spain, I know which I'd go for. Isn't the purpose of a literary award to highlight works that may not have commercial appeal, but are of exceptional quality. And, of course, popularity is often no indicator of quality. Otherwise Katie Price would be at the top of that list.

Declan Burke said...

Stuart, squire, with all due respect, you're missing the point by presuming that the Booker nominees are automatically 'quality' books. When, as Delingpole suggests, as often as not they're badly written in that they're overwritten, and boring to boot. You can be a wonderful manipulator of language and be a very poor novelist ... they used to call them poets when I was at school. And I should say that The Enchantress of Florence is popular and beautifully written ... so it is possible to write well and entertainingly. Cheers, Dec

Rafe McGregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rafe McGregor said...

I've not read "Child 44", so I can't comment on its merit, but I have read several derogatory comments about its nomination for the Booker Prize. I think this is symptomatic of the division of fiction into 'genre' and 'literary' categories, which I've always believed an imposition rather than a reflection of real differences.

I read and write genre fiction, I'm not ashamed of either, and I'm quite happy to defend it. The damage this artificial divide does works both ways,however: it not only implies that genre fiction can't say anything important, but also that literary fiction can't entertain. Difficult to believe we're still buying this in the 21st century.

Rant over...it reminds me of the outrage when Stephen King received an award for lifetime achievement at the National Book Awards. About time, says I!