Booker prize divides quality from readability, says Andrew Motion
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion has hit out at this year's judges of the Man Booker prize for creating what he calls a "false divide" between highbrow literature and accessible books.
The judges' focus on "readability" has provoked strong criticism from Motion, a trustee of the prize and former chair of judges, who said it "opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true".
After reading 138 novels to come up with their longlist, the judges are now settling down to choose who will win £50,000 on Tuesday night, having read the shortlisted titles at least three times.
Motion said the Booker should not become a theatre in which a split is opened up between quality and readability. "That is a pernicious and dangerous thing."
Motion said if he had been judging this year's prize, he would have included novels by Alan Hollinghurst, Graham Swift, Philip Hensher, Edward St Aubyn and Ali Smith on his shortlist, as well as Julian Barnes's The Sense of An Ending, which did make the lineup.
"It's extraordinary they are not on the list," he said. Instead Stella Rimington and her panel picked two debut authors (Stephen Kelman and AD Miller), rounding out the six-strong lineup with two little-known Canadian authors, Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan, and the UK's Barnes and Carol Birch.
"I have read them all. I am very glad the Julian Barnes is there and I very much hope it wins. By a long way, it is the best book on the list," said Motion.
The public has certainly welcomed their choices, with the shortlist the most popular since records began.
The literary establishment has been less impressed, however, with agent Andrew Kidd (backed by names including John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon and David Mitchell) announcing last week the launch of a new prize rewarding novels which are "unsurpassed in their quality and ambition", something which he says the Booker now fails to do. Kidd said the Booker instead prioritises a notion of readability over artistic achievement.
"I have nothing against readability, but some books are more challenging. They are readable too, but take more time and concentration," said Kidd. "We liked the idea of a prize where excellence was the criteria. If it happened to be easy to read, then great. If it was more challenging, then that was fine, too."
One publisher, unwilling to speak on the record, agreed, saying that "the consensus does seem to be that the Booker this year is a bit of a shambles", with the panel lacking authority and a bit confused about what the prize is for.
"We need icy indifference to public opinion from our Booker judges, and we expect at least a few impenetrable, dark, tricky novels on the shortlist," said Kidd. "That way it's all the more surprising when a Life of Pi emerges. Basically the whole thing needs to be an utter snobfest, otherwise how is it different from the Costas?"
Poet Jackie Kay said: "We desperately need a prize which shows off the best writers writing in English. It is a sad day when even the Booker is afraid to be bookish … People want to think. They don't want to be patronised. People are excited by books doing different things with structure, like Ali Smith – it's really shocking she wasn't even on the longlist."
But the Booker prize's administrator, Ion Trewin, defended the judges' choices, saying that they were not looking for readability at the expense of anything else, rather that they wanted to find novels where it was combined with quality and excellence. "Nobody wants something with literary quality which is unreadable – that would be daft," he said.
The prize's literary standards have not dropped, he added. "What has happened is that the judges have identified previously unknown, or little known, authors. A lot of people find it very difficult to take if it means their much-loved literary darlings have not made it.
"It's nothing to do with a fall in standards; it's about discovering new authors [and] I absolutely don't think there has been any dumbing down or change in standards. They've just produced a rather unusual list because there is only one well-known name. The proof ultimately will be what they choose."
Debut novelist Kelman, selected for Pigeon English, his take on the murder of Damilola Taylor, said that, for now, he was just enjoying the experience of being shortlisted.
"I don't get the idea that readability and quality should be mutually exclusive. I think they should be combined," he said. "If it's making literature as a concept more acceptable to more people, then surely that's an overwhelmingly good thing and should be encouraged and celebrated.
"I think the judges have said they are going on the quality of the books in front of them, not the reputation of the author, and that makes for a fairer process."