Writer and arts project manager Irenosen Okojie had this to say in today’s Observer about the Booker Prize longlist:
“If the panel was more diverse, then perhaps the list would be more inclusive. Here’s a radical idea – next time, perhaps the panel could be made up of an equal number of men and women as well as a few non-white people.”
Reading her piece, which is forthright, well argued and above all passionate, it seems to me that she is right on just about every level. Because although many of the individual titles on the Booker longlist may have strong literary merit and a reason for being, there is without a doubt something irredeemably safe about the list as a whole. What is it saying, exactly, this list? Is it saying that literature is ring-fenced, the property and prerogative of a narrow, self-replicating caste not so much of reader but of judge?
More than careful consideration, literature needs passion. Literature should not be in a vitrine, it should be out there. We need books to be authentic, raw, interrogative, questing, angry.
I was brought up short by what Sergio de la Pava said in a recent interview about the process of submitting his manuscript (A Naked Singularity) to agents and publishers:
“Replies varied. Some said ‘not interested’, others said ‘sounds great, send it to me’. I think what I found most dispiriting was that quite a few people were into the concept of a book about criminal justice, but when confronted with something that was complicated and not easily quantifiable, that interest disappeared. It was humiliating. It was horrifying.”
I felt so angry on de la Pava’s behalf, that a writer of such obvious passion and fierce originality faced with such hidebound attitudes should almost have been put off writing altogether. A book is allowed to be entertainment. A book might even be allowed to be an elegant intellectual bagatelle – provided of course that you’re reasonably well established as a writer – but complex and difficult? Hell no. Eimar McBride came up against almost identical obstacles here in the UK:
“I really don’t think they have tied everything up neatly. I’m not interested in irony and I’m not interested in clever. I’m interested in trying to dig out parts of human life that cannot be expressed in a straightforward way, that don’t fit neatly into the vocabulary and grammar that are available. To do that you have to make language do something else. I didn’t really know how to do it, I just tried and that’s what happened… I didn’t want to crush what I liked about the book, which was the rawness of it. The one idea that I brought the whole way through was that I wanted to try to give the reader a very different type of reading experience.”
Should this – a very different type of reading experience – not be precisely what the judges of the Booker Prize are looking for?
My initial enthusiasm for the 2014 Booker longlist stemmed mainly (as with this year’s Clarke) from relief, that at least there was some good stuff on it. The good stuff is still good stuff, but on reflection, I think that in terms of literary discomfort, this year’s Booker longlist is falling short. As a writer, I have always found my greatest strength in looking to those writers who have gone before me, who have marked out some of the ground I nurture the ambition to encroach upon. As Okojie suggests, it would be wonderful indeed to think of new writers from any and every background being able to look at the Booker longlist and see their own personal champion in amongst it, marking out the territory, providing that secret kick up the arse to get them moving. That can’t happen with this list, or at least not nearly as much or as widely as it should.
The only discomfort the 2014 list provides lies in its seeming exclusivity. What are we doing?? Things need to change. Let’s hope at the very least that next year’s judging panel comes closer to the ideal that Okojie suggests above.