Man Booker Prize 2011: What’s Wrong With a Readable Book?

On Tuesday night the prestigious Man Booker Prize was awarded to Julian Barnes for his work The Sense of an Ending, grabbing the award ahead of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.

The unfortunate aspect of this year’s shortlist is the nature of the critical response. Obviously, literary critics are never going to completely agree with a list of the six best books of the year and they are entitled to their opinion, but the accusation of dumbing down levelled at this year’s judges is disappointing. What exactly have the judges done to deserve condemnation?

For considering “readability” when naming the nominees.

A worrying perception can be derived from the nature of this debate: ‘high-end’ literature and ‘readable’ books are mutually exclusive. For example, Paradise Lost is considered of great literary quality, but reading it could be an intimidating prospect for some. This does not mean it is not ‘readable’, members of Get Into Reading groups often broaden their literary horizons and read material they may normally have considered too difficult.

On the other side of the coin, the argument implies that a novel with a somewhat linear and relatively easy-to-follow narrative cannot be considered as great literature. Of the list the only one I have read is Pigeon English. This is a thoroughly readable novel, and it is a very touching, affecting story relevant to life in 2011. It is a story told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy living on an estate in London, who investigates the murder of another boy in the community.

I read the final few pages on a descending plane – a time when a few nerves normally kick in – but I wasn’t taking a bit of notice as I took in the climax of the novel, and then re-read the final couple of pages. It is unsettling to think a beautifully written book reminding me of what it was like to be on the cusp of the teens could be victim of condescension for being readable.

Chair of the 2011 judges, Dame Stella Rimington, made a compelling defence of the shortlist selection following the announcement, summing up the frustration quite perfectly:

All this discussion about readability and dumbing down has been a whole load of nonsense in my opinion. I mean, I did use the word ‘readability’ and I shall stick with it although it’s kind of been kicked over and thrown around, and at the end of the day you have to ask yourself what’s a novel for, if it’s not to be read?

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