Booker Books

Frank Kermode

The National Book League, on behalf of Booker McConnell, announces in a press release that one of five named novelists ‘will be £10,000 richer at 7 p.m. on 23 October’. The other four will have to be content with leatherbound copies of their books; one of the ways in which this competition differs from a golf tournament is that nobody gets appearance money. It’s all or nothing, an award for literary merit is made to look as much like a win on the pools as possible. By now the world as well as the contenders knows who’s in, who’s out, the matter having been decided by a non-competing novelist, three literary critics, and Asa Briggs.

This is the 11th time the Booker Prize has been awarded. It is much larger than any comparable prize, either here or in the US. Last year it was increased from £5,000, so it must be worth nearly as much as it was when it began in 1969. Nobody, I suppose, thinks it a bad thing to give this large but not staggering sum to a working novelist, and it can be maintained that others also benefit. There is some ballyhoo to catch the public eye, and anything that puts people in mind of fiction will be welcomed by publishers and authors in these days of minute sales. The sales of all shortlisted authors are expected to rise during the period of suspense that ends just before the grand dinner at Stationers’ Hall; the winner gets an extra bonus of more sales; and the sponsors presumably do at least as well out of the enterprise as they would by spending the same amount of cash on cricket or golf.

Although Booker has a financial stake in some best-selling writers, their business is not in the main literary, and in 1972 the prizewinner, John Berger, made a speech in which he expressly deplored what he regarded as the exploitative nature of the donor’s principal interest; indeed he gave half his prize to a revolutionary movement. Other writers have shown some embarrassment but have not, so far as I know, gone to such lengths. And however rum it may appear, the prize, if you look at the way it is set up, is unlikely to go to the kind of author businessmen feel they should own a piece of. The list of winners to date indicates that on the whole it is the moderate sellers, writers who are not exactly caviare to the general but have won the respect of professional critics, who are favoured: V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, David Storey, Paul Scott, Iris Murdoch, for instance. Beyond that it isn’t easy to see much significance in the list – perhaps there’s a nostalgia for the old Empire (Scott, J.G. Farrell, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, plus Nadine Gordimer, Naipaul, and P.H. Newby on Suez). Negatively, you won’t expect, and won’t find, anything that looks very ‘experimental’. Muriel Spark must have come up again and again, sometimes against what, looking at the list, one imagines cannot have been enormously powerful competition; and if she can’t make it, there seems little hope for such as Christine Brooke-Rose or Alan Burns.

There are at least two reasons why adventure is not to be expected. The first is the lack of books to be adventurous about. The big mind-stretching, patience-trying, world-beating novels are now written in America, North and South, or perhaps in Germany. The publishers tell us that Günter Grass, when he wrote The Flounder, conceived of it from the outset as a Major Novel; we can console ourselves that it turned out to be vast but boring and even absurd, all shouting and rusé showmanship. English admirers of The Crying of Lot 49 are apt to be told that their liking it is a sign of pusillanimity, a shirking of Gravity’s Rainbow. Mailer’s new 1,800-page masterpiece now threatens. No doubt one way to get a masterpiece is to go on trying to write very large, ambitious books. But our contemporaries in Britain don’t seem to be interested. And the second reason is a related one: readers, including reviewers, are also programmed against Major Novels.

It is sometimes said that the Booker jury always has at least one man- or woman-in-the-street on it, to prevent possible excesses by highbrow judges. It may be so, but the precaution seems redundant: there is no chance that any book that doesn’t comply in at any rate some respects with the prevailing and temporary assumption as to what the good novel eternally is – with an idea of the novel laid up not in heaven but in a thousand British classrooms and drawing-rooms – will get very far. It is unlikely even to reach the jury, since publishers who take deviant books don’t bother to submit them. If they did, the judges would turn them down, either out of conviction or on the correct supposition that their choice would be thought inappropriate to the occasion.

The task of these judges should not be underestimated. I don’t know how they go about it nowadays: the judging I took part in, for the first award, may have been anomalous. We read about sixty novels, then reread 12, then reread the last six. This long process was punctuated by exhausting lunches at Bertorelli’s. Finally we went off to a house in the country and passed a weekend in voluble deliberation under television lights. It was a test of stamina. We were not permitted to tell anybody where we were (not for the sake of literary secrecy, but because the house was full of extremely valuable paintings, and was to be glimpsed on television). We could go for wintry walks, recorded like everything else by the cameras. It was very arduous and as honest as anybody could wish. A surprising number of entries were obvious trash, but quite a few were not. The ghost of the General Reader hovered around, but had little to do; we were general readers already. In accordance with what is very likely a psychological law on these occasions, we found ourselves deferring to one of our fellow judges, a writer of eminence whose opinions were always firm and clearly expressed. She laid it down that one candidate, a prolific author, invariably produced one year a good novel, next year a bad one, and that this was the bad year. There was, at the time, a short-lived fashion for the euphemism (if that is the right word): ‘he entered her.’ I think it originated in Brideshead Revisited, or perhaps that was ‘she made him free of her narrow loins,’ which never caught on. Anyway, our leader grew tired of it, finding it both ludicrous and obscene (‘I hope he wiped his feet!’ she cried) and persuaded us to drop any novel that contained it. The field thus thinned, we proceeded to the terminal tussle, and achieved a unanimous verdict for P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer for. I continue to think this an excellent novel, though hardly anybody seems to have heard of it, let alone read it.

It must, however, be admitted that in making choices of this kind the judges are instruments of Fortune rather than arbiters of absolute merit. In some measure this must always be so, for the consensus by which merit is judged varies indeterminately through time. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong to complain of the narrowness of our taste at the present moment. Everybody who reads the weeklies must know how set in their ways our reviewers have become. They appear to pretend to an innate knowledge of what a good novel should be like; local and temporary attributes of narrative are treated as laws of nature, as if there had not been, in a fairly recent epoch, convincing demonstrations that all such ‘laws’ were merely matters of custom. Writers who so regard them – Beckett, for instance, or Nabokov – may be admired, but are generally treated as if they were irrelevant, belonged to some other world. Strongly conceived characterisation, strongly registered setting, strongly conducted story, some interest, however conventional, in a social problem: these are the qualities that win prizes and good notices. And it seems possible that in the long run a highly advertised endorsement of products possessing those qualities may have a deadening effect on public taste.

Why is it, then, that not all Booker awards are to trivial novels? First, because good novels of the kind I have described continue to be written; good writing in that kind calls for skill and intelligence. It happens that Mary McCarthy’s Cannibals and Missionaries has just been published over here.[*] Miss McCarthy is very skilful, has a passion for getting everything right, and a taste for serious talk on intractable problems. Her book is about a terrorist skyjack, which faces her squarely with the need not only to get the action right but to discuss the philosophy of terrorism. Since the hijackers accept great works of art as ransom, and subject them to the threat of death or mutilation, the question arises of the relative value of a Vermeer and a perhaps not very wonderful human being. The right characters are assembled – the rich, the wet liberal, the ineffectual Christian etc – and exposed to a well-differentiated set of guerrillas. The speculative core is well-dressed in the story, with its appropriate yet not entirely predictable climax, careful settings, accurate notation of behaviour. Miss McCarthy is a discerning admirer of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but does not emulate it; and if one could imagine her book and Nabokov’s in competition for the Booker Prize, hers would almost certainly win. Her mind is fuller, and she has a sharper edge, than most of her British contemporaries: but this is the kind of book likely to succeed against the formally adventurous and socially negligent.

The lack of ambition I’ve already mentioned – its social causes, if any, I won’t try to explain – has had one curious effect: in some important ways the British novel is being miniaturised. Here is another reason why some good writers can hardly hope to win. Though monsters are not required, very small things are perhaps not serious enough, especially as they tend to be fey, whimsical or grotesque into the bargain. Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden is an instance; more strikingly, the now numerous books of Beryl Bainbridge, who has been shortlisted but has not won. A more recent candidate is Penelope Fitzgerald, whose first straight novel The Bookshop won no prize, and whose second, Offshore, is shortlisted this year. If it wins, I shall need to revise my views on the whole matter; my guess is that it is on the list only to be eliminated at the last moment. In any case, Offshore,[†] though admirable, strikes me as decidedly inferior to The Bookshop. The earlier book was defter, more resonant, and more complete. Penelope Fitzgerald is a writer who came late to the novel, bringing with her a powerful, slightly unorthodox intelligence and a remarkable habit of accuracy, which shows not only in the wit of the book but in the provision, by apparently casual means, of a deep surface polish, an illusion of total specification. Her dialogue is excellent, and so is her eye for the peripheral incident which enhances without impairing the plot. She writes a kind of fiction in which perfection is almost to be hoped for, unostentatious as true virtuosity can make it, its texture a pure pleasure.

Offshore, like its predecessor set in the early Sixties, slack water in the tide of change, deals with a group of barge- and boat-dwellers in Battersea Reach – a community as tight as that of the isolated East Anglian town of The Bookshop. Like the earlier book, it is obsessed with water and loneliness; it has also an interest in preternaturally wise girl children. Marriages are especially difficult to maintain on the tideway: even the automatically decent ex-RNVR man is abandoned by a wife who finds the water boring, and the mother of the wise children cannot easily lure her husband back to the river. What is admirable is the economical strength with which the conditions of life are specified. But the book seems, by comparison, anecdotal. Some of the anecdotes are very good: the children’s discovery, in the mud of low tide, of two beautiful De Morgan tiles, their trumping the expertise of a King’s Road dealer, and spending the proceeds in Woolworth’s; the efforts, thwarted by time and rot, of an old man to sell his hopeless barge. But the apocalyptic flood of the ending doesn’t hold everything together. The book is excellent on water, on kindness, courage, loneliness. If it wins, though, it should be understood as standing in for The Bookshop.

But there is no reason, if I am half-right about such awards, why it should. The Booker judges, doing their duty as almost every conceivable panel would see it, will probably feel that Penelope Fitzgerald, for all her skill and intelligence, won’t do (very few problems of our present-day society get an airing); something a bit bigger and a bit duller will have prior claims. And in the end, one’s reasons for feeling less than happy about the prize and the publicity is simply that it gives so much publicity, so much authority, to the already well-established opinion that there is something a bit suspicious about novels, however excellent, that wantonly deviate from a well-understood normality.

[*] Weidenfeld, 384 pp., £5.95. Cannibals and Missionaries was discussed by Robert Adams in the New York Review of Books (25 October 1979).

[†] Collins, 144 pp., £4.50.