Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)

“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”

Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:

Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.

And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”

From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.

Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.

Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)

Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.

*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.


7 Responses to “Sense of a happy ending for Barnes”
  1. Panic says:

    You know I love me some populist fiction, but I’ve not been super impressed by the Bookers I’ve read this year. I guess I do depend on them to deliver that challenging list that rounds out my year’s reading. I’m a bit bereft! But I haven’t gotten down to the Barnes either, yet.

    I found C actually unreadable. :

  2. Steph says:

    I really have to think about your last comment longer, about the dichotomy between challenging and readable writing. I like this: “Novels that are ‘reader-friendly’ are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions.” Agreed.

    My initial thoughts, however, before I got past Winterson’s quote and to your answer to her question, were that I like very much what she said. I agree there too. But at the same time, when I put it into context, I also understand the Booker jury wanting to pick books that were more “readable” (read: more accessible to the general public). I understand that in terms of sales as well. Yet, it’s sad to me that many language-rich books, like John Lavery’s Sandra Beck for instance, which is probably still not what Winterson is talking about though it contains much wordplay and is totally non-linear and innovative in terms of style, are deemed inaccessible. I think that might say more about the general public’s capacity to think while we read than about the authors and their books.

  3. Alex says:

    Panic: C. was (almost) unreadable. Not worth reading anyway. But the Barnes was the best book I read this year. The jury made a good call.

    Winterson’s complaint about printed television is an old one. Gore Vidal talked about the same thing forty years ago, when he was looking at bestsellers.

  4. Finn Harvor says:

    Why is it no one ever talks about “paper Ingmar Bergman”?

  5. Panic says:

    Alex: Good to know I’m not alone on C. I thought they were right on last year with Finkler, my favourite of the bunch. Anyway, looking forward to the Barnes.

  6. David Ben says:

    Congrats Julian Barnes for winning “Man Booker Prize”. The way he is working he deserves this prize. I’m happy for his achievement and looking forward to the Barnes. Thanks :)

  7. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite living writers, so I’m awfully glad he’s finally won. I haven’t had a chance yet read this latest, but it does seem that perhaps this is one of those life-time achievement awards, as there are so many novels he should’ve have won for: Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, England, England, and Arthur & George (and, though I loved Talking it Over and Love, etc, those two aren’t the kind of books the Booker aspires to, or at least used to).

    Winterson’s notion that a book IS its language is one I agree with, although as a lapsed Winterson fan, I would argue that the What and the How of a novel (or short story) are inextricable from each other. Since (and starting with) Written on the Body, Winterson appears to have lost the sense of humour and playfulness that made The Passion and Sexing the Cherry (and even her disowned Boating for Beginners) such great books. Barnes has managed to maintain his wit and dignity and respect for language AND narrative all these years. Bravo.