Adam Luria visited JW3 London to see a conversation with Howard Jacobson in the lead up to the Man Booker Prize 2014, for which Jacobson was nominated again for his novel ‘J’ (Jonathan Cape).
But what of the Man Booker? What of ‘real writing’?
“If you’re a serious writer, it’s difficult to get read.”
These, the words of Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner in 2010 with The Finkler Question and shortlisted again in 2014 for his latest novel, J. By his own admission he’s a writer who wants to be taken seriously. But more than that, he’s a writer who wants people to take reading seriously.
His 2012 novel Zoo Time lamented the degradation of the novel and railed against everyone and everything, from the Kindle to Richard and Judy and, indeed, the general reading public. With a middle-aged Jewish author from the north of England its main protagonist, you might say there was an element of autobiographical influence. As a diatribe in which plot seems almost an afterthought, it conveys Jacobson’s own anger and anguish at the de-intellectualisation of modern literature.
In conversation at north London community space JW3 last month, he was, as ever, in bullish mood on the subject. “I’ve been invited to speak at so many book groups, but I’ve had to stop doing them. The worst thing I’ve heard is when people tell me that they don’t enjoy a book because they can’t identify with the characters. It’s one of the most stupid things I’ve heard! You’re not supposed to identify with them; that’s precisely the point. How boring would the world be if we only read books about people we identified with?”
Hardly surprising then, that with his generally pessimistic outlook (he reiterated his assertion that he’s “never met an intelligent optimist”) he should have produced such a deeply dystopian novel as J. It depicts a world where something terrible, something – literally – unspeakable has happened. In this post-apocalyptic scenario, conformity reigns. A bland society where violence has become ordinary and creativity has been eradicated is defined by its complete lack of ‘other’.
Where Zoo Time was an explicit attack on the banality of modern literature and our expectations thereof, J is in some ways almost a like a sinister parody of this idea, taking the banality of contemporary culture to its ultimate conclusion. But more than just an argument, it is a deliciously crafted novel, at once a love story and a grave warning of the perils of conclusively winning an argument. Certainly it was worthy of its place on the 2014 Man Booker shortlist.
But if Howard Jacobson is right about the downfall of the modern novel, then who is reading really for, anyway? Who is the “general intelligent audience” whom the Man Booker Prize has always aimed to attract?
This year the Man Booker had a much-publicised broadening of its horizons. The inclusion English language novels regardless of the author’s country of origin was greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth on one hand, jubilation on the other. But a breach of one of the Prize’s less well-known rules went altogether unpublicised.
The publisher of each novel on the Man Booker longlist is required to have at least 1000 copies of that book available within 10 days of the nominations being announced. This should ensure that, in theory, anyone can hold of a copy of a longlisted novel and read it themselves. An excellent way to broaden the readership of this most prestigious of literary prizes.
But this year, two of the shortlisted books broke this rule. One of the novels on the original longlist wasn’t even published for over a month after nominations were announced.
In an era of bargain-basement Amazon offers, bookshops should in theory have the advantage of being able to use the draw of the Man Booker to make their longlisted novels available to the general public. Instead, the literary establishment have succeeded only in making the consumption of serious literature even more elitist. Even if the general intelligent audience is out there, the Man Booker seems to be trying its best to make sure that they’re not part of the exclusive industry inner circle that is able to access and discuss all of the nominated novels when they are announced.
So while Howard Jacobson may well be entirely justified in decrying 3-for-2 deals and the banality of modern popular fiction, he might do better to direct his ire towards the Man Booker Prize for failing to properly promote serious literature and serious writers.
Not so much a case of: “If you’re a serious writer, it’s difficult to get read.” More: “If you’re a serious reader, it can be difficult to read.”
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Adam Luria is a friend of Open Pen, currently residing in Wood Green, London.
Howard Jacobsen’s 2010 Man Booker Prize winning novel and 2014 Man Booker Prize nominated novel are available from all of our stockists, and all good bookshops.