Readability, accessibility and the Booker prize

Amongst the three people who actually care about such things, there has been a small controversy brewing over the shortlisted novels for this year’s Booker prize, the winner of which is to be announced this evening.  You may have missed it, since this has been not so much a storm in a teacup as a tempest in a thimble, but the nub of the problem is comments made by the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, and one of the judging panel, Susan Hill, about their criteria for including a book on the shortlist.  Both Hill and Rimington expressed the view that the books merited inclusion on the list because they were ‘readable’, while another member of the judging panel, the former Labour MP Chris Mullin, said that he had been looking for novels that ‘zip along’.  Both sets of comments have provoked outrage amongst a subset of the literary world, who have accused the prize of ‘dumbing down’.  Some were so outraged they announced the setting up of a rival prize, the imaginatively-entitled The Literature Prize.

There’s little doubt, I think, that this is the most middlebrow Booker shortlist in quite some time.  Not only are established literary heavyweights, with the exception of Julian Barnes, notable by their absence, but the novels selected by relatively unknown authors are, judging by their synopses, fairly lightweight too.  This is not, so far as I’m concerned, a bad thing in and of itself – I actively enjoy and seek out some middlebrow fiction, just as I actively enjoy and seek out some popular fiction and some highbrow fiction.*  Moreover, in any fight between the self-conscious elitists behind The Literature Prize and writers interested in talking to everyone, I’d give my backing to the generalists in a heartbeat; I despise the idea that any art-form should degenerate into something shared only amongst an exclusive coterie.  But the greater problem, so far as I can see, is that both sides in this debate seem to be talking abject nonsense.

To begin with, both seem to be endorsing without question the idea that there’s some kind of spectrum in fiction, with one extreme marked ‘Readability’ and the other marked ‘Quality’.  This is patently nonsense.  Readability is governed by things like the choice of vocabulary and the length of sentences and paragraphs, while literary merit consists in the quality of a book’s characters, mood, tone and plot.  The two sets of variables are completely independent, and there’s no correlation, positive or negative, between them.  You can have an unreadable book of very poor quality (and, trust me, as someone who has made the mistake of volunteering to read novels written by friends more endowed with enthusiasm than talent, I know this for a fact), just as you can have an eminently readable book that is of very great quality.

This is evident even in the limited world of Booker-winning novels.  I’m not an avid reader of Booker novels, but I can think off the top of my head of three comparatively recent winners I have read – Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – and all of them were perfectly readable, no matter what I made of their literary merit.  By that I mean there was nothing in them in terms of vocabulary or sentence structure that would have proved a challenge for anyone with a good basic grasp of the English language – someone with at least a C in GCSE English Language, let’s say.  The implied criticism of previous Booker novels – that they, in distinction to this year’s crop, were unreadable – seems unfair.

This is perhaps not a huge surprise, though, since, despite what they say, neither side in the debate are actually talking about readability, but rather accessibility.  Readability is to do with how well a writer conveys the ideas they are trying to convey, while accessibility is to do with how easy those ideas are to understand.  In the realm of non-fiction this distinction is pretty well understood, I think.  Take this sentence from Wikipedia, for example:

There are six types of quarks, known as flavors: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top.

That sentence is very readable, in that it uses simple vocabulary and employs a straightforward structure, but that doesn’t mean it’s equally accessible: the ideas it discusses will be unfamiliar to many people, and are not easy to understand.  Exactly the same thing can occur in fictional writing.  Sentences and paragraphs can be well or poorly constructed, and that will affect how readable they are, but they can also discuss familiar or unfamiliar ideas, and that will affect how accessible they are.  Re-framing the ‘dumbing-down’ debate about the Booker prize in this way is revealing, I think.

When discussed in terms of readability, this is an open-and-shut case.  Clearly no writing prize should be in the business of rewarding poor quality writing.  There may be times when readability has to be compromised – sometimes a writer wants their reader to share the confusion or chaotic thought-processes of a character, not just read about them, and that can only be done by reproducing the chaos and confusion on the page – but good quality writing will always be concerned with making itself as readable as possible.  It follows that including readability in the criteria for a literary prize is eminently sensible.  (So sensible, in fact, one wonders why all previous Booker juries didn’t include it – unless, of course, they did, but took readability to be so obvious a criterion it wasn’t worth specifying.)  When we acknowledge, though, that the participants in this debate are using the word readability to mean accessibility, and think about the issue directly in those terms, it seems to me it becomes a lot less clear cut.

Thought about in these terms, the fundamental issue is not whether we want to reward only those books that are readable, but whether we want to reward only those books that discuss familiar ideas, and so are easy to understand.  To go back to the analogy with non-fiction from a couple of paragraphs ago, this would be like saying a science-writing prize could only go to a book that discussed Newtonian physics, since these ideas are familiar, and a book on quarks, no matter how well written, must be excluded because its unfamiliar and complex ideas make it inaccessible.  The analogy is imperfect, of course, as analogies always are: a contemporary science book that presented Newtonian physics as the whole story would be depreciated on grounds of inaccuracy-by-omission, and would probably fail to win the prize for that reason.  In terms of assessing fiction, there aren’t objective criteria like this to fall back on, so the process of deciding which books to reward is necessarily subjective, and it follows that there aren’t any right or wrong answers.

This year’s Booker jury obviously feel that previous shortlists have been too inaccessible, whilst the publishers and authors promoting The Literature Prize evidently feel that accessibility is already too highly valued, and that this prevents well-written but complex books from achieving the recognition they deserve.  These are subjective matters, and so there’s no simply right or wrong answer – how inaccessible is too inaccessible?  My own subjective view is that there is some kind of middle way to be found between those intentionally elitist authors who pursue inaccessibility as a goal in its own right (rather than ending up there because that’s what their material demands) and those intellectually bankrupt authors who serve up warmed-over themes and ideas to readers who don’t want to be made to think.  Going purely by the reviews – I haven’t read any of them – this year’s Booker shortlist seems to me to have veered further into the territory of the warmed-over themes and ideas, even though recent winners haven’t exactly been daunting intellectual challenges on the scale of Finnegan’s Wake.

One of the major frustrations for me in following this debate has been the tendency of both sides to talk about ‘readability’ when they’re actually talking about ‘accessibility’.  This terminological inexactitude has enabled both sides to lapse into positions they’re comfortable with.  By implying that ‘readability’ and ‘quality’ are poles apart, it confirms the intentional elitists in their belief that a lack of readers is a sign of high quality, but, by implying accessibility and readability are the same thing, it also confirms the Booker jurors in their belief that complexity is a sign of poor quality.  But a greater frustration is that – in keeping with every other Booker ‘controversy’ – this debate is deflecting attention from a rather more fundamental problem with the Booker prize.

The aim of the Booker prize is that it should be a means of raising the profile of books and authors that might otherwise escape attention because they are relatively lacking in commercial success.  The Booker prize does a relatively poor job of representing the breadth and quality of non-commercial fiction, not because it is too concerned with rewarding ‘unreadable’ novels, or because it is too concerned with ‘dumbing down’, but because it considers such a narrow range of books, and such a narrow range of subject matter, as being suitable material for literature.  This was a point made very effectively by one of the commenters on a Guardian article about an aspect of the controversy:

Pale, flavourless, complacent, self-indulgent, calm, upper middle class literature for mild, tame, passionless upper middle class people.

Sunburst was writing there about the totality of British literature, and in that context the remark is unfair, but as it applies to Booker novels it absolutely sums up the problem.  Even when Booker novels tackle gritty subject matter (the protagonist of Wolf Hall, for example, ordered the deaths of his political and religious opponents by starvation and burning alive, and these episodes are covered in detail in the book) it’s treated in a relatively pale, abstract way.  As a class, Booker novels, whether middlebrow or elitist, have tended to fall so deeply in love with the idea of themselves as literary artefacts that they’ve forgotten the first duty of fiction: to present the reader with a compelling, vivid encounter with ideas, characters and stories.

* – The fact I endorse middlebrow literature in principle shouldn’t be taken, by the way, for an endorsement of the specific novels appearing on the shortlist, some of which – keeping in mind that I haven’t read any of them, and am relying on reviews – would seem to be pretty awful.  I note, for example, that one of the shortlisted novels, Pigeon English, features a talking pigeon dispensing spiritual advice, which sounds like the naffest literary conceit since the ineffably annoying woodworm in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.

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