The 3 non-fiction books you need in your life

Although I read a fair amount of non-fiction (especially recently), I tend not to write about/review any of it on my blog. Why is this you ask?  I’m not sure – it’s probably because fiction is so much my writerly comfort zone that reviewing non-fic scares the bejeezus outta me.  Also, I tend to read non-fic subject matter that I’m a complete amateur/beginner in, and hence have zero frame of reference from which to make points of comparison/criticism, and so reviewing such books would be kinda disingenuous.

Carly, however, doesn’t seem to have this problem, and writes equally brilliantly about non-fic as she does about… pretend stuff:

They say you can learn a lot about a person from the possessions they’d rescue if their house was burning down. For the purposes of this post, I think the same holds true if you replace ‘possessions’ with ‘books’, ‘rescue’ with ‘didn’t sell’, and substitute moving abroad for the whole burning house thing.

Scanning our sparsely-populated shelves here in our SF flat, here’s what I have learned: a surprising number of my non-fiction books accompanied me onto US soil. So, in honour of these brave little pioneers, here’s my recommendations for three non-made-up books you have to read:…..

Intrigued? (you should be!) Click here to find out which 3 books Carly insists that you read: Teacup in the Bay: 3 non-fic books you need in your life.

Go on. click!

Tomcat

Running for Cover. Two.

Although much of it is hilariously bad, sub-par, clichéd drivel: I really like fantasy/sci-fi cover art (when it’s good, that is, of course).  But recently a large number of publishers have ditched the beautiful painting/artwork that is such a hallmark of genre fiction and replaced it with dark, homogenised, minimalist symbol-imagery style cover designs.  Obviously trending on the back of a Lord of the Rings overhaul ((pictured) and hot on the heels of the Twilight novels’ massive rise in popularity), it’s a cynical example of associative marketing; ‘if our book looks like that bestseller, maybe people will think it’s the same?’.  So: black covers with little symbols in the centre are very much en vogue, it seems.  Take a look at how creepily similar some of these re-designs are (all very new, emerging in the last couple of years) – I prefer the paintings:

                                           OLD                                   NEW

The Fantastic Boy complained: “All my friends are changing,” he said “they used to be so colourful; but now they’re dark, and I can barely tell them apart.”

Running for Cover. One.

If our jackets of flesh were all alike, as each a mirror to ourselves//a correlative mate, ‘for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’;- would we be more distant inside/or less submerged? And would words’ weight be passable to recollect you, or I //from the ever indistinguishable, ever equivalent changeless skein of the endurably allied?

 

Death by a Million (paper) Cuts.

Tonight (5th March) is the much-touted inaugural ‘World [sic] Book Night’.  There are numerous booky events planned throughout the UK: signings, readings, seminars and TV pieces, all taking place this evening.  Good stuff.  But the mainstay of the project, the centre-piece of this literary banquet, is a giveaway of one million free novels (25 proven bestsellers chosen by various (and anonymous) publishing Olympians (through a non-disclosed selection procedure)).  Since it was announced last year, the giveaway has garnered vast public and political support, and I want, want to see it as a good thing; I want to add my voice to the myriad choir of bibliophile supporters; – but I just can’t.  WBN’s big book giveaway elicits a feeling of unease, even dread, in my belly; a feeling that is threatening to rise up and manifest itself in a vomitous stream of bile and anti-sentiment.  I’ll try to restrain myself, but no promises.

I’m well aware that opposing the book giveaway is to move decidedly against-the-grain of the blogging majority: on-issue, but off-trend.  This post may prove to be the proverbial final nail in the coffin of my blog’s meagre popularity.  Scratch that: this article will see my blog’s reputation sealed in an iron sarcophagus, which itself will be dipped in a vat of cement and jettisoned off the side of a funeral barge into the Mariana Trench, never to rise again.  But who said blogging was a popularity contest anyway? … 

With so much at stake, please allow me a few words of mitigation before I plant my flag too firmly in the sucking mud of the capitalist position.  Firstly (and brace yourselves for a shock with this late-game revelation): I love reading.  I love books.  And I want more people to love books.  I despair that in a jury of my peers, there may be one, two people with whom I can talk about books.  You can move that figure into the paltry decimals if the conversation turns to the stranger and more difficult aspects of fiction.  So promoting reading, debate and the novel (whether artefact or ‘e’) and encouraging discourse about books is a good thing in my eyes.   The socialist in me (who’s becoming more and more vocal these days) would love free books for everybody all of the time.

But almost as much as I love books, I love book shops.  And not just the small and charming indies that form the staple of my bibliophile diet.  I like the big, cavernous, labyrinthine high street ones too, where I can browse for hours, and where I have to self-censor in the face of ten equally attractive editions of each individual novel.  For me, buying a book is as much a histrionic and performative display as it is economic (more on this later). 

I also have a personal history with bookshops, one which will likely colour this post.  Just under two years ago, I was employed arranging deckchairs on the Titanic that was Borders Books UK.  I adored my job, and have many fond memories – but my presiding impression of our store’s final months is black and sinister.  I remember being irreconcilably upset, and even now, years later, dwelling on it for too long is a dangerous undertaking, which threatens to pull me into the slough of despond and drown me in sad memories.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the book retail and publishing world is in massive decline at the moment.  Borders is no more, Waterstones are rumoured to be halving the number of sites they carry this year: BBS has gone out of business, Books etc has vanished from the UK, and a reported 2000 Independents have closed down since the onset of the recession.  Partly this is the fault of the ‘Current Economic Climate’; but below-cost selling and loss-leader competition from the likes of Tesco and Amazon et al has also been immeasurably damaging.

At Borders we waged many long, difficult battles with publishers, begging them to shave a few pence off the wholesale price of books.  But publishers struggle too, and they would never budge on their price points for us, citing the CEC as their reason.

Now, to discover that publishers are giving away one million books for free almost defies belief.  Many publishers have been lobbying parliament for years in an attempt to have price-fixing introduced into the UK new book market – to protect the industry and the writers from the malicious loss-leading tactics of supermarkets. (Price fixing schemes have proven a runaway success in both Canada and Germany, where the majority of booksellers have managed to comfortably weather the economic maelstrom with no ill effect).

Understandably, people are thrilled by the giveaway: we all love a freebie.  But several authors have expressed their concern (they won’t be receiving any royalties from this, and given that most writers’ incomes are miniscule anyway, their concern is reasonable); booksellers are utterly outraged.  Flooding the market with (approx) eight million pounds of retail stock and concurrently stripping it of all retail value by delivering it to the consumer free of chargewill directly remove money and investment from the book retail sector.  As things stand, bookshops are struggling to compete with heavy-discounting: competing with a million FREE books is just impossible.

What’s more: the books that comprise the giveaway aren’t obscure or esoteric novels making a last-ditch attempt to find public recognition: they are heavy-hitters of the fiction world (Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman, David Mitchell etc.).  These novels are the financial mainstay of the book shop: it is revenue generated from sales of these books that allow book shops the luxury of selling the more obscure, difficult, non-mainstream novels.  Book shops need this revenue stream.

The WBN giveaway perpetuates a strange notion that book retail has some private and non-disclosed source of extra funding, and isn’t reliant on physical sales to turn-over profit.  Publishers, authors, booksellers and printers need to make a living, and a public consortium giving stock away for FREE (capitals used becuase, frankly, I’m still trying to convince myself that this is actually happening) is not going to reinvigorate the market: quite the opposite, I’d imagine.

Of course, there’s a strong ethical argument for the giveaway, and I fully expect the more passionate moralists out there to accuse me of being a Luddite.  I want more people to read; literature shouldn’t be the closely guarded secret of a privileged social elite: but I don’t think that giving away a million free books is going to spark the reading revolution that the WBN organisers would have us believe.  The moral/social benefits of this scheme are dubious at best, utter bullshit at worst.  But the damage to bookshops is real. 

Instead of the great readerly resurgence predicted by the WBN committee, the giveaway is merely preaching to the converted.  The likely outcome of the project is that 20,000 middle-class volunteers will distribute their 48 book allotments out among their mates and families.  There are no protocols in place to ensure specific, worthy demographics are able to take advantage of the giveaway.  Supplying charities or libraries or schools with cut-price books is one thing: a misguided and un-regulated free-for-all on a million units of stock is altogether a more menacing beast.

The giveaway devalues books, and furthers a notion that they are free to write, publish, print and distribute and are therefore not worth paying for.  Bookshops (especially indies) will be the ones paying for this giveaway, and I can’t help but feel that WBN is a great big Fuck You to bookshops. 

Giving away a million books is just the laziest way of inspiring people to read.  I know from experience that reading isn’t the cheapest of interests, but rarely is it so expensive as to be prohibitive.  There’s a disappointing perception that books are boring, difficult, unglamorous, time-consuming, obtuse or elitist: and these are the reasons that people don’t read: the WBN giveaway does nothing to tackle such problems.  It’s a naivety to think that throwing freebies at the public is going to convert the masses to reading, or be the progenitor of some new literary intelligentsia.

And sure enough people will rush to grab these free books, but I worry that these will be the same kinds of people who browse bookshops for hours, take advantage of the knowledge of staff, make long lists of potential purchases… and then go home and buy their books from Amazon to save meagre pence, as if bookshops don’t need their custom.  It’s a fundamental example of the old adage ‘to know the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

I love bookshops: I enjoy the long browse, and the visual delight inspired by the sheer amount of books in one place.  I love that two strangers, people who, on the surface, may have nothing in common, can bond instantly and with depth when two hands both reach for the same novel.  And I think this is worth protecting and standing up for.  The book shopping experience is unique, and it’s part of what I pay for when I buy books.  Buying books has become histrionic again – it’s political.  The experience offered by bookshops – community and discourse and unapologetic intelligence – is worth paying for: it’s fucking valuable.

I apologise for the polemic tone of this post.  And I know my opposition to the giveaway is going to anger some, but there we go.  This article isn’t a resistance to charity or the free exchange of ideas, and I still believe that encouraging non-readers to dive in is a noble endeavour.  But this is the wrong way to go about it.  Why don’t you go into your nearest bookshop and give the booksellers a hug?  Something tells me they’re gonna need it.

Tomcat.

Faulks on Fiction – a Review of My Review, and of Episode 2.

Since my last post went live (Faulks on Fiction – an on the fly review), my blog has received an unprecedented amount of traffic: literally tens of hits in just over a week.  Eat your heart out Stephen Fry!

The majority of these hits may result from search engine enquiries for ‘Sebastian Faulks + pink shirt’, but I’m not disheartened: people are finding my blog, and if just one of them stays and reads for a while, well… that’s more audience than I expect or I deserve.  My thanks to those who have visited my blog and taken the time to read and to comment. (note: For some reason beyond the sphere of my grammatical understanding, MS Word isn’t letting me use ‘to comment’ as an intransitive verb. Fucker. I’m leaving it in.)

I didn’t intend to write a follow-up piece to Faulks on Fiction, but I’ve been encouraged to ‘give the people what they want’ (insert dirty pun of your own contriving here).  However, I’m still full of doubt about my writing, and I’m feeling laconic tonight: so what follows is going to be somewhat of a composite piece: that is, some brief comments of my own, combined with the observations of other writers that I’ve shamelessly picked up while curb-crawling the blogosphere.  Any points made by other writers will be attributed as such.

And don’t expect me to make a habit of this: my blogroll (see right) is to remain the exclusive preserve of people I know in “real life” – but bibliophile interest in Faulks on Fiction is such that I feel a pooling of critical consensus is in order.

 —–

For those of you who may be out of the loop, Faulks on Fiction is a new BBC TV series with an explicit focus on characterisation.  Mary Sackville-West, one of the producers, does a good job of summing up the project’s modus operandi in her own blog (which also includes some video clips).  Mary also goes someway to addressing my previous criticism that the show is too dependent on stock footage and film clips to beef-out its run time:

We decided to use both readings and adaptations to illustrate the text. For many people, adaptations on the small or big screen can be their first encounter with a particular character.

We wanted to harness that by reflecting some of the wonderful characters stored in the BBC’s rich archive of dramatisations.

One of the main intentions of making a television programme about novels is not to distract from the act of reading the novel itself but to complement and even encourage

Fair points: but I still believe the show is top-loaded with too much of this stuff – to a detrimental extent, as I often found myself wishing there was more of the interesting and productive dialogue between Faulks and Simon Schama and Alain de Botton et al and less of Gemma Arterton’s pouting.

 The writer of the ThoughtsonTV blog is more forgiving, and writes in defence of the merits of combining the visual with the narratorial.  For those interested, this blog can be found here.

The most significant point of contention with episode 1, however, stems from something that Martin Amis said while being interviewed by Faulks.  I admit that I glossed over this as I watched the show (I was writing at the same time: a testament, then, to my total inability to multi-task): but what Amis said was something along the lines of ‘It would take a serious brain injury for me to write Children’s books’.  (I think) what he’s getting at, is that a writer shouldn’t self-restrict in order to pander to a potential audience. 

The notion that Martin Amis is so vested in the corrupt and disturbed that he couldn’t possibly write for children without self-censoring to a detrimental degree is something I find incredibly strange and utterly laughable.  It’s an almost comically vampiric thing to say, and I find Amis’ self-mythologizing to be sickening.  As my friend Thom recently said: (I paraphrase) “the idea that anybody lives in such a bubble of high-culture is just bullshit”.  Lucy Coats at Jacketflap takes issue with Amis in more detail.

I’m wary of repeating myself at this point: so I won’t re-hash what I’ve already posted about episode 1.  My thoughts can be found below.  Mr T over at Mrt’sblog has also written a review of Faulks’ ‘hero’ episode: his thoughts chime in tune with my own: only he manages to express himself with more eloquence, and less sarcasm.

—–

So, onto episode 2: ‘The Lover’.   I liked ‘the Lover’ episode, probably more than episode 1, if I’m honest. Though some niggles still persist. The pink shirt returns (and is comically critiqued by Nathan Briant here – a good illustrative example of Faulks’ limited and dianthus wardrobe).

Trivial matters aside, I just can’t buy into the idea that by looking at 4 or 5 novels (albeit novels separated by hundreds of years) you can demonstrate any kind of literary trend or pattern to something as enormously difficult and varying as love. Things aren’t so linear and literature isn’t so homogenised.

I don’t believe that a Darwinian progression from simple to complex can be applied to the literary treatment of lovers. If any trend exists, I imagine it’s far more nebulous and difficult to pin-down. Chaucer was writing intricate and difficult lovers waaaaay before Miss Austen showed up.  It would take a lot of evidence to convince me that the writers Faulks analyses were deliberately attempting to develop an ever advancing tradition of lovers: because I don’t think that such a tradition exists.  If study has taught me anything, it’s that literature isn’t so collective.  Faulks would have you believe that ‘The Lover’ is some kind of baton in a literary relay race: always moving forward, and being passed on from one runner to the next; neat and unbroken.  It’s an alarmingly narrow supposition.

Similarly, his choice of texts definitely lacks breadth: exclusively white, middle-class English novels thus far. I was hoping that Faulks would have the balls to discuss more difficult portrayals of love (Lolita, for example), but maybe his mandate only extends to British writers, in which case, shame on you BBC.

There were some good points about Tess of the D’urbervilles though.  I was especially struck by Simon Schama’s observations that Tess isn’t just a victim of circumstance, but a victim of her own un-wanted sensuality, and that the real tragedy of Tess is that she’s born with a body irresistible to men.  I hadn’t thought of Tess in such direct terms as a mind-body conflict before.  Gotta love Simon Schama.

But hey, I’m probably over-thinking what’s intended to be a popular-interest show. It’s great to see books discussed on TV and outside of the boardroom setting of ‘The Review Show’ etc., and without a panel of academics fatuously agreeing with each other over something small and pretentious a la newsnight review.  

I think the general consensus is that Faulks on Fiction is flawed, but valuable nonetheless.  Faulks seems to tip-toe around his terms, ‘Hero’ wasn’t sufficiently defined in episode 1, and ‘Lover’ is treated too linearly in episode 2 (eeurch, I’ve just realised what a horribly awkward adverb ‘linearly’ is; but the synonym centre of my brain appears to have shut-down for the night, so it’ll have to do). I’d rather Faulks stop being so dainty: he needs to grab these terms by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them into submission.  But that’s the trouble with labels.  Slippery buggers.

I doubt that I’ll be reviewing further episodes: for variety’s sake and because, as stated, I don’t want to find myself making the same turgid points about every individual episode.  Sorry if this post was a bit directionless and derivative.  More book reviews are in the pipe-line.

Comments welcome.

 Tomcat.

Faulks on Fiction – An on-the-fly Review.

This town, is coming like a ghost town.  And by town, I mean blog.  There are numerous reasons (read: excuses) for my recent dearth of posts – including, but not limited to,: work, sickness, canine interruptions (i.e. playing with my sister’s pet dog Oliver) and cavalier dentistry: the horrific  combination of  pain and humiliation.

The most significant obstacle to my output, however, is the abject fear I am now subject to every time I sit down to write something.  It contracts my stomach, dizzies my head and blurs my vision until productivity is utterly impossible, and I’m left curled in the corner of the red room in a knee-hugging and pathetic ball of crippled self-doubt.

I don’t know what’s responsible for my recent inability to put pen to paper (this phrase used because it’s more romantic and pleasingly alliterative than ‘to put fingertip to keyboard’ – despite the latter being more accurate), but I’m determined to get out of this lull, even if it means crawling out on my hands and knees.

So I’m going to use this post to jump-start my blogging life.  The proverbial kick-up-the-arse that is so clearly needed.  Inspired by an old article by my friend Thom (hi Thom!), this is an on-the-fly review of Faulks on Fiction, a new BBC documentary about that most important tenet of fiction – characterisation.  The programme is just beginning on BBC 2, and I am writing this post in-tandem with its broadcast. 

This is about as close as I can get to blogging live, and will hopefully force me to fucking well WRITE something.  So, to hell with fear, self-doubt and writer’s block: and brace yourselves for some ad-hoc and improvisatory analysis as I cast the generously-spaced net of my critical faculties into the roiling sea that is the tellybox, to see what I can drag up.

—-

And here’s Sebastian Faulks, looking every bit the literary Mick Huknall that he is (he’s popular with Mums, right?).  He gets off the starting block with a firm assertion of his critical mandate: he wants to talk about characters, not writers.  Today’s ‘character archetype’ (my phrasing, not his) is, “the hero”.

I’m instantly suspicious: Faulks posits that all significant literary characters fit into one of four categories: ‘heroes, lovers, snobs, villains’ (his phrasing, not mine).  I’m going to take some convincing.

In an ill-advised hot-pink shirt (that does nothing to quash the Huknall resemblance), Faulks walks a tropical beach (much to the delight of license-fee payers.  I imagine) to discuss Robinson Crusoe.  He reads from the book (enunciating very well, I might add), and makes some fairly trite critical observations that Crusoe’s most significant struggle is with himself, not the island on which he is stranded. 

But it’s not all simplistic: Faulks concludes his analysis of Robinson Crusoe with an (almost modernist) declaration that the book’s salient point is to highlight the significance of an individual life, intellect and spirituality in an increasingly industrial/metropolitan/homogenised world.  It’s a nice sentiment, I think, even if total isolation and loneliness is a rather heavy-handed and extreme way of expressing it.

Now he’s talking about Tom Jones; which I haven’t read; so I have to take his points here on faith.  Thus far, however, Faulks hasn’t gone very far to defining what he means by ‘hero’, or to demonstrate any universal traits to the archetype.  Let’s hope the label ‘hero’ doesn’t turn out to be an irritating catch-all excuse to talk about his favourite books in one documentary.

Next up, Vanity Fair: “there is a hero and… she’s a woman!”  remarks Faulks, accompanied by stock footage of the 90s BBC adaptation.  But, thankfully, we’re getting closer to defining ‘hero’ – ostensibly somebody who cares for other people in an otherwise grotesque and self-indulgent society.

“The standards we apply to people in books are different” – I suppose it’s true.  I’m currently reading (well, grinding) through Infinite Jest, and I am loving the self-centred and immoral Michael Pemulis, despite the fact that I’d probably hate him in “real life”.  Does this make him a hero….?  I still need some convincing.

[As a side note: the now-mandatory (it seems) dramatic recreations of the books Faulks is discussing is beginning to grate.  I understand that TV is a visual medium, but all I’m really noticing is the poor production values and graininess of the some of the stock footage – it’s a little distracting.  Is reading in such a bad state that it needs glamorising with the visual?]

 —

Faulks ditches Vanity Fair (and, mercifully, the pink shirt) in favour of Sherlock Holmes now.  “The first Super Hero”.  Here, the hero is identified by his ability to flood the darkness with the light of reason and science.  Simon Schama is interviewed (too briefly) and makes the most interesting point of the documentary so far: the hero’s role is to unmask the evils that surround him – and it’s all the more interesting if he’s enduring an internal struggle simultaneously: in Holmes’ case: a battle between logic and madness. Conan Doyle is shown describing Holmes as a ‘monstrous growth’ – to me this offers an ulterior philosophy to Barthe’s post-structuralist idea of the ‘death of the author’ only here, it’s the character that has overcome and destroyed the author, not the reader.

Now: how World War I altered the concept of the individual as ‘hero’ in the face of vast, nebulous, ungraspable numbers of dead.  Faulks gives Birdsong a bit of a vanity plug; but I’ll allow him this, as it’s pretty damn good.

Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty Four) expresses his heroism in the act of writing a diary (I suppose this is as corollary to expressing your heroism intellectually or physically).  Faulks pitches Winston Smith as a new kind of hero: the hero defeated.  This seems too easy to take issue with.  Maybe he’s not read Othello or Jude the Obscure or Oedipus Rex etc. etc….

Lucky Jim’s turn for analysis now: the hero as everyman.  A mop-haired psychoanalyst I don’t recognise talks to Faulks about heroism being an act of self-discovery; overcoming inhibitions and being true to the self, even if this means flying in the face of a society’s prescriptions.  Heroism as liberation of the self seems to be what he’s mostly getting at.

Finally (I think), is Money by Martin Amis, famous for its “post-moral”, slobbish (and snobbish), vain, materialistic “hero” John Self.  It’s suggested that John Self is likable because we all, secretly, wish we had the balls to be more like him.  I admit that letting out the non-disclosed arsehole within has appeal: but constantly throwing the word ‘hero’ around here is something even Faulks seems to find uncomfortable.

Ah: Faulks makes good points: that the narrator (Martin Amis) exposes John Self as a fictional creation is the final nail in the coffin of the idea of ‘hero’.  “The hero is dead: end of story”.

I’m not convinced that all these novels are riffing off (either subverting or upholding) the concept of a ‘hero’ – especially as Faulks never manages to pin-down exactly what he means by this.

Overall though: I thought the programme was pretty good.  It’s nice to see literature discussed canonically, and with a bit more flair than the (let’s face it) incredibly staid and uninspiring seminar-room setting of The Culture Show or Newsnight Review.  I find it encouraging that a show about literature has had some money thrown at it (the constant dramatic recreations were tiring, but the stock-footage of author interviews broke up the show nicely, and without disrupting the flow of things).

Clearly my most severe criticism is with this ill-defined notion of ‘hero’.  It all seemed a bit wishy-washy to me, as Faulks failed to identify any essential traits that linked all of the characters he discussed.  I can’t quite fathom what the selection criteria were – obviously the televisual medium severely limits the number of characters up for review: and it’d be fruitless of me to list those I consider to have been overlooked by the programme.  But randomly selecting a collection of protagonists under the blanket moniker ‘heroes’ and then going on to discuss how none of them are at all alike, seems a little self-defeating to me.  I can’t help but feel that if Faulks had made some comment about the problems of defining the hero, then the show would have been a lot stronger and a lot more cohesive for it.

Faulks on Fiction also glossed some interesting points without, I think, drawing enough attention to them: that the ‘hero’ figure has transgressed from being somebody who upholds a society’s values to a figure who struggles against its tyrannies is alarmingly overlooked by Faulks in his narration. 

Similarly, the readers’ subjective response to character is entirely disregarded by the show.  Faulks doesn’t pick up on a fact that is, seemingly, staring him directly in the face: I found it interesting that historian Simon Schama focused on the political moral facets of character in order to define ‘hero’, whereas the psychoanalyst (whose name, I admit, I didn’t note) discussed heroism in purely self-involving terms. 

Right… so there’s my two-cents on tonight’s episode of Faulks on Fiction.  I enjoyed it, and was surprised by how natural and confident a television presenter Sebastian Faulks makes.  Mostly my criticisms are niggles with his terms rather than his choice of texts, and the majority of the points he made were good ones.  And I am sure that, given more time, Faulks would have addressed more of the issues I raised.  Great to see this sort of thing on TV: but damn it one hour just wasn’t enough.

I may or may not write an article like this again.  More book reviews soon (promise).  I apologise if this sucked: but hey, I’ve forced myself to write something for the first time in over a month.  That’s a good thing… right?…

Tomcat’s Bookerthon: a conclusion.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.  Several weeks ago I threw the gauntlet of literary fiction at my own feet, and set myself a challenge; of reading, and of writing.  Attempting to report on the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist was a noble undertaking, but one which, regrettably, fell beyond my powers of endurance.  However, my failure wasn’t total. I did manage to read all thirteen nominated novels; it’s merely in the writing of reviews that I’ve been unsuccessful.

Circumstance hasn’t allowed me the time I need to sit down and write about all of the books I’ve read, and for that I apologise.  But these blog posts don’t write themselves.  Unbelievably, it takes many hours of blood, sweat, tears and toil to churn out such poor-quality pieces of clunk and cliché.  Soaring to the giddy heights of reviewerly mediocrity doesn’t come easy to me; yet I press on, and I will review all of the out-standing Booker nominees in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, I’d like to use this article to make some final comments on the Booker prize, as well as to commit some sickening and vainglorious acts of self-praise, as I congratulate myself on having read twelve pieces of serious literary fiction, and The Slap, in just eight weeks.  Haven’t I done well?

My Bookerthon journey has transported me literarily (not literally) to: Canada, Australia, Eighteenth-Century Japan, Russia, Greece, India, Holland, France, Ireland, Egypt, Africa, Nineteenth-Century Jamaica, and that favourite staple of the English metropolitan literati: South London.  I’ve never felt more well-travelled, or well-read.  A book-by-book tour of the longlist’s settings would show you half the world; I may even suggest a Booker Prize Cruise to P&O.  Next year, if I find myself richer and more eccentric, I could read every nominated novel while journeying through the country of its setting.  Though now I’ve stated this as my pre-facto modus operandi, the Booker judges will inevitably put-paid to the idea by nominating twelve books set in North Korea, Tibet, Iran and Atlantis.

But does breadth of time and place equate to breadth of style and theme?  The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is: no.  The Booker prize enjoys a prestigious reputation as the pantheon of modern English literary writing.  When Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer dominate the bestsellers, we can always rely on the Booker judges to point us in the direction of quality, depth of emotion and profundity of thought.  At least, that’s what they’d like us to believe.  Ostensibly the prize represents the best literary fiction of the past twelve months; but if reading the entire longlist has taught me anything, it’s that the Booker committee’s definition of ‘literary’ is shockingly narrow.

Admittedly, I don’t pander to any stringent classification of ‘literariness’ whatsoever.  I like Simon Schama more for the lyricism of his prose than the content of his history.  Conversely, I find much of Dickens to be border-line unreadable.  ‘Literary’, to me, has always been an elastic and ambivalent critical term, a bit messy and hard to define.  However, the Booker judges are untroubled by such mitigating quandaries, and seem to have pinned down this ever elusive moniker with alarming precision.  If this year’s longlist is representative of the ouvre, then “literary fiction” is much narrower in scope than I ever imagined.

For the judges of the Booker prize seem to consider “literary fiction” to be a very specific brand of uber-realistic, psychologically sober, historically-informed utilitarianism: social fiction; Big Fiction.  Nothing about the longlist is non-linear, speculative, genre-defying or experimental.  What do the Booker nominated novels all have in common?  They all carry with them the cumbersome weight of plausibility.

Maybe I over-egged that a bit, so don’t get me wrong – narrative realism isn’t a bad thing, far from it; but it’s not the only stylistic idiosyncrasy that’s conducive to good writing. The judges don’t so much play it fast and loose with their choices as they do slow and tight.  None of this year’s nominees would be out-of-place as adaptations on the BBC’s autumn line-up.  With the possible exception of C, all are staid and familiar.  Accomplished, but unthreatening.  The 2010 Booker prize longlist felt like a place I’ve visited many times before.

In a previous post, I bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Alastair Reynolds, Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Ian Banks from nomination; I even began to question the value of my own taste.  But having read the entire longlist for myself, the truth is now clear to me.  These books were excluded not because they’re bad fiction, but because they’re the wrong type of fiction.  The title of “Man Booker Prize for Fiction” is really a daring deceit; a misnomer of nomenclature.  The Booker Prize espouses such a narrow definition of ‘literary fiction’ that it has, in a way, spawned its own genre of writing.  It’s somewhat worrying that the adjective ‘Bookeresque’ could be used to define the narrative style of the entire longlist; so homogenised are the nominees.  China Mieville may compose the most sublime and insightful piece of writing ever produced, but if it’s a work of his transgressive experimentalism, then he’ll never be nominated.

 So maybe it’s time that the Booker Prize FOR FICTION either re-defines its terms, or re-titles its…err…title.  Let’s be frank: the Booker is a genre prize, in much the same capacity as the Arthur C. Clarke or the CWA awards.  My laboured point, condensed, is this: the Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of English language fiction, but the best of a certain type of English language fiction.  And this, I think, is a shame.  Alastair Reynolds’ books contain all the colours of human emotion; he just has space ships too.  If only the judges would give a nod-of-the-head to a work of crime, or horror, or sci-fi (or any of the portmanteau works of transgressive fiction currently doing the rounds), then I’m sure people’s eyes would be opened to the real breadth of brilliant, brilliant writing that’s out there.  The Booker judges could be responsible for banishing this new myth that literary fiction is a specific kind of realistic, safe writing.  Many of the Booker nominees are brilliant, but they’re all of a type.  I’m taking issue with the spread of the longlist, rather than any of its individual titles  And thus the Booker, despite how it’s marketed, isn’t a prize for all of fiction, but for a comfortable brand of predictable MOR narrative.

It wouldn’t take an implausible paradigm shift for the Booker to incorporate the weirder and more speculative aspects of literary writing; and in doing so it would  truly earn the right to bear the title ‘prize for fiction’.  All fiction.  As things stand, the Booker institution is perpetuating a false notion that weird, unrealistic or experimental writing isn’t literary or valuable.  The Booker Prize is a bully by neglect.

Sorry about that rant, something more melodramatic than British took hold of me.  But I hope that my point stands.  Of course, none of this means that the books which have been shortlisted are inadequate or poor; they’re just not the complete picture of current English literary writing.

Anyway; enough of what could have been, and on to what is.

Of the thirteen novels originally nominated, six were chosen to form this year’s shortlist:

C – Tom McCarthy

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

Room – Emma Donoghue

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I’ve already taken issue with the quality of several of these books, and I’m wary of repeating myself, so please peruse my previous posts if you’re at all interested in mythoughts.   Suffice and sufficient to say; I think that C by Tom McCarthy should win this year’s gong.  It’s a masterwork; its themes of transmission and loss are explored with a fearless devotion to intricacy, and a refusal to simplify or condense.  Parts of the novel manage to conduct a wonderfully violent attack upon the precepts of organised language.  In it the lexicon of technology is converged with that of grief in an unusual yet moving way.  It’s never contrived, and through constant yet subtle literary references, C manages to make extraordinary points about the interconnectedness of language, literature, life and loss.  It kicks-ass and you should read it.

 And so I am glad that I decided to embark upon this ill-fated but interesting reading project.  It’s been a learning experience.  Without it, I probably wouldn’t have come across such brilliant books as C, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or Room.

Yet despite discovering these novels, I won’t ever be undertaking such a reading project again.  Unless it’s for money.  The more I read, the less I enjoyed myself; and as the weeks progressed, this challenge began to feel more like a test of my readerly stamina than a quest to discover new, great literature.  I did enjoy several of the books on the longlist; but many others I disliked, even hated.  I forced myself to spend many long hours ploughing through books that would otherwise never have interested me.  And I regret having to fritter away my time on such literary abortions as The Slap or Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal.  Yet being the conscientious tyke that I am, I was determined to finish every book, no matter how tedious the reading experience.  See? I suffer for my art.  Or, rather, for certain writers’ lack thereof.

 Another point that stuck me, like a crowbar to the back of the head, was the utter futility of comparing so many books.  Examining such contrasting novels as Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy of manners and Emma Donoghue’s thriller of childhood incarceration, then attempting to resolve which one is ‘best’, seems a somewhat facile undertaking.  I’m aware that it’s the only way that one can judge a prize such as the Booker; but I don’t envy the judges their task.

So here’s another of the lessons this experience has taught me: many books are incomparable, and arguing ( for example) that Trespass is a better murder story than The Long Song is a slave narrative just strikes me as…stupid.  In the free country of the Redroom, at least, it’s not how things are done.

 —

Ultimately, the deeper I dug, the more frustrated I became.  Firstly, with the limited scope of the books that were selected for the longlist (the usual spread of historical fiction, family dramas and books by Peter Carey); secondly, and by association, with the amount of my favourite fiction of the year that wasn’t nominated; and thirdly, with the complete banality of comparing so many different books, in order to discern an individual winner.  I know the Booker prize is a force for good; if nothing else, it draws attention to niche writing that would otherwise never find its way into the bestsellers chart.  And I am glad that I didn’t detect any vein of misguided political correctness running through the judges’ choices; as is so often rumoured to be the case.

But mostly, I just couldn’t wait for the process to be over, so I could once again walk in the free gardens of literary choice, where my taste isn’t dictated to me, and where I can read whatever I choose, whenever I choose it.   If the judges ever decide to shake things up by nominating fewer works of historical fiction and family saga in favour more left-field and experimental novels, then give me a call.  But as things stand, my final realisation is this: I couldn’t give a crap about the Booker prize.

Tomcat

He book, She book, Me book; e-book

As well as reading a lot of books, I try to read a lot about books.  Originally this was limited to The Bookseller and various newspapers, but recently I’ve branched out into the ‘blogosphere’.  Sure there’re a lot of amateurish and ill-informed blogs out there (mine included, I imagine); but wade through the crap for long enough, and you’ll eventually find something that shines.  There are indeed people with very interesting and insightful things to say about books, writers and reading. However, there is one issue that polarises opinions more than any other, one topic of debate which causes even the most eloquent of intellectuals to devolve into a ranting and petulant child of fancy: the e-book.

E-books inspire extremes of feeling, and while it’s great that people are so impassioned by their identity as readers, it strikes me as odd that so many otherwise liberal and open individuals feel a need to plant their flags and declare outright war on one reading medium, or the other.

 In one corner we have the literary luddites; the puritans of paper.  You know the type: page sniffers.  These are people who fetishise the very paper, ink and glue of books, and for whom reading is as much a tactile experience as it is cerebral.  They do solemnly reject the e-book in all its forms.   For the literary Luddite, Kindles are only good for kindling.  They fear what may be lost with the coming of the e-book; but it’s a fear that’s without any sense of proportion.

In the other corner (the one you can’t fold down), are the lovers of e-books, technology fetishists; people who espouse a kind of readerly scientific determinism; ‘we can read this way, therefore we must’.  They are always to be seen with an e-reader in one hand, a take-out coffee in the other (probably) and a smug expression that seems to say: I have liberated myself from the medieval restrictions of the printed word.  This attitude is one of forever pushing forward, but with a nihilistic rejoicing in the demise of the old.

 

Okay, so maybe I’m generalising – but only a little.  Perform a quick search of internet blogs, and I’m sure you’ll be amazed by the sheer amount of people vowing to out-and-out reject one medium in favour of the other.  My obvious point is that both stances are utterly ridiculous.  The histrionics of reading needn’t be so divisive.  It may be unusual of me, but I’m calling for the middle ground.

 I don’t in anyway object to e-books, and am planning on owning my first e-reader as soon as it’s possible.  But buying an e-reader doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the printed word – and why should it?  I have no fervent, obsessive loyalty to physical books, and I won’t engage in an almost perversely quasi-religious self-denial just to achieve some non-status as a ‘pure’ reader of print.

 

There are advantages and disadvantages to both mediums; e-books are cheap, convenient, environmentally less damaging (if that’s your bag) and almost infinitely space-saving.  However, unless Sony are planning to release a 24-inch e-reader, then books of art, design and cartography will always be better served by the printing press.  In the Red Room, at least, there is ample space for both mediums to co-exist.  I imagine that I will continue to read physical novels even as I buy e-books, and while I do enjoy the tactile experience of reading – the feel of good paper, or the barely-there indentations made by a letterpress on the page –  I don’t require it in order to fully enjoy reading.  We all know, really, that it’s the words that matter; and only in the words are the meanings found.  Rilke’s poetry, or Chaucer’s lyrics mean just as much to me scrawled in my own hand or re-produced digitally as they do in the most decorative and lavish of books that the printing press can produce.    That which is Shakespeare by any other medium is still Shakespeare.

Of course there are things that the e-book market cannot offer.  Last Saturday I drove to my local bookshop, expecting to spend just a couple of minutes buying my next book, and ended up having an unplanned two-hour discussion with the owner about the idiosyncrasies of modern English writing.  Clearly this is an experience that Amazon will never be able to supply.  And striking up a conversation with an otherwise complete stranger on a train or in a cafe, purely because you’ve read the book they are now reading, is an experience unavailable to the readers of e-books (a friend of mine has suggested that e-readers incorporate a back-screen, which displays the cover art of the book being read – brilliant idea).  It is for these reasons – those of experience and community – that I believe the printed book will never die.

 

So please, don’t reject any form of writing just because it’s new (or old).  The arrival of the e-book will (eventually) change the book market in significant ways, but this doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to what came before it.  I have faith that the two –the e-book and the printed book – can coexist, and I’m sure that society will not do-away with the better aspects of print purely because of the economic convenience of the new form.  Call me naive, if you’re so inclined.  The e-book may even turn out to be a force for greater good than people imagine.  It may hail a sea-change in the way we read; any book accessible anywhere, to anyone, is surely something desirable; and if the cost is a partial diminishing of the world of printed books, then maybe it’s a price worth paying; if people will read again. 

Tomcat

Edwin Morgan 1920 – 2010

I was saddened last week to learn of the death of Edwin Morgan, the Scots Makar (the Scottish equivalent of the Poet Laureate, I suppose).

I discovered Edwin Morgan when I was fifteen, and I went out-of-my-way to acquire his books; something I’d never done for any poet previous (though am happy to say I have done for many since).  The themes of his poetry range from love, Scotland and the construction of history, to science, futurism and time. 

Morgan’s output was relentless, and he was equally as comfortable writing Spenserian sonnets and villanelles as he was with the most esoteric of form-free post-modernisms.  ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ is a rhythmic exercise in gibberish/nonsense, whereas the sublime ‘Planet Wave’ is a suite of ten poems beginning with the big bang, and reaching bravely into the concepts of endlessness and legacy.

My friends, do you want to know what you should feel?

I can’t tell you, but feel you must.

                                [From ‘On the Volga’]

 What is immediately striking about Morgan’s poetry is the momentum of the verse; his prosodic mastery is compounded by his sparse punctuation and the brevity of his assertions.  Frequently, his poems consist of only a single sentence, occasionally split into commata, but very rarely anything heavier.  The lack of end-stops carried by his lines lends great pace to his poetry, and I often find myself swept up into the verse, not pausing until I finish reading the poem.  In fact, line-ends are frequently the only syntactic breaks in Morgan’s pieces; you’re carried into the restless, pulsing expression of the narrator’s inner-most conflicts, only given pause to consider the significance of his ideas at the very end.

Such poetry was written to be read aloud – and I recommend that you hunt down some recordings of Edwin Morgan reading his own poetry.  The low, heavily-accented timbre of his beautiful voice gives his poetry a forceful identity that it could never have in text alone.  He made several recordings for the Glasgow Herald a couple of years ago – I’m sure they’re available on YouTube or elsewhere in the ether of the internet.  His more recent recordings are his best; his experienced, measured delivery is of a kind that only comes with age: a melancholy without self-pity.

If only we’d been strangers

I’d have snapped you up

And carried you away.

                                [From ‘Floating off to Timor’]

 

One of his greatest achievements was to re-define what it means to be a Scottish writer.  Throughout his career, Morgan constantly wrestled with the concept of ‘Scottishness’ in literature.  He was aware of the weight of the past, but he was persistently rushing towards the future.  There’s a tension between a romanticised and idealised artistic vision of Scotland (as might be expressed in, say, the works of Walter Scott) and a more modern, realistic image of Scotland as industrial and contemporary; a country with as much pain as beauty.  It is in this conflict that Morgan discovered his most provocative and moving imagery; a country ancient and new; a landscape wild but calming.  This conflict between how Scotland is seen, and what Scotland is, has become a major theme in modern Scottish literature, and it’s easy to detect the influence of Edwin Morgan in so many Scottish writers currently working: Iain Banks, Christopher Brookmyre, Ian Rankin, even Irvine Welsh.

If you find yourself with a spare five minutes or five pounds, then I urge you to find some of Edwin Morgan’s poetry.  There are many collected editions available, and his work is featured in most half-way decent anthologies of modern poetry.

If I were in any way gifted, I would write a eulogy; but only Edwin Morgan’s own poems can do him any justice.  So, I’ll end with one of my favourites by the great man.  ‘Scottish Friction’ was commissioned in 2001 as part of a project to bring together Scottish writers, musicians and artists.  In it, Morgan returned to his favoured theme of Scotland: its conflicts and beauty, and what it means to be Scottish in the twenty-first Century.  Astonishingly, he was 81 when he wrote this:

Scottish Friction

It isn’t in the mirror

It isn’t on the page

It’s a red-hearted vibration

Pushing through the walls of dark imagination

Finding no equation;

It’s a red road-rage

But it’s not road-rage

It’s asylum seekers engulfed by a grudge;

Scottish friction,

Scottish fiction.

 

It isn’t in the castle,

It isn’t in the mist,

It’s a calming of the waters as they break to show

The new black death, with reactors a-glow;

Do you think your security can keep you in purity?

You will not shake us off, above or below;

Scottish friction,

Scottish fiction.

The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…

 

The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.

 

Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.

 

It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.

Tomcat.

*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.