The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

This appeared in The Guardian (Comment is Free section) on 28 July 2012:

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

The inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of four debuts and three novels from excellent indie publishers is a welcome sign

[Science Fiction novelist China Miéville has criticised the Booker Prize for becoming its own genre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian]

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in ancient Greece. Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The Nobel prize in literature (1901) was followed by the Prix Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer prizes in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black memorial prizes in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forebears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”.

The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant.

Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool, a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau.

The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated.

Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zip-along page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt).

The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

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Here is a longer — uncut and unedited — version of the above text. A draft, if you will:

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in Ancient Greece. These early competitions, however, were more akin to poetry slams or the itinerant Literary Death Match, than to the sedate book prizes we are accustomed to. Dithyrambic contests were collective, all-singing-and-dancing renditions of poetic works. The name of the victorious chorus would often go down in history, while that of the poet himself would be forgotten. It was, above all, the performance that was being assessed.

Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the nineteenth century. The Nobel Prize in Literature (1901) was followed by the Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forbears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”. Whether or not most prizes “get it mostly wrong,” he clearly has a point when it comes to the Nobel: “No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist — Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively — as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs”.

According to Lars Iyer (whose novel Spurious was shortlisted for last year’s Not the Booker), “the prestige of authorship” — producing great works — has given way to “the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism,” which is sanctioned by book clubs and prizes: “With pomp and circumstance, the award ceremonies vainly bestow medals of greatness on novels that vaguely mime our fading memory of masterpiece. The prestige, the debris, the body of Literature remains even as the spirit has fled”. The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. In the autobiographical Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), he describes a cursory acceptance speech as “a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty”. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool (2003), a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker Prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau. The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated. Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The Novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though Modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zipalong page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt). The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole!

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A Grin Without a Cat

Brian Dillon, “At the Hayward,” London Review of Books 2 August 2012

[‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti, 1989]

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation — there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at — and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of the LRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.

The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse — in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33” is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer — not quite a collector — agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.

As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. […]

There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated. […]

All the Latest

I was asked to write a piece about the Booker longlist. You can read it here in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section:

[…] The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

All Writing is Conceptual

Tom McCarthy, Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, 2012

“But all this — Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose name starts with B — is theory,” certain voices might cry out at this point. “Writing should be natural, spontaneous, not underpinned by dogma.” It’s an argument that has led my own work, in the past, to be described in the past as “conceptual” — as though it had gone down a certain path, entered a thorny, awful region, a vast realm of boundless chaos, the sensible, productive alternative to which would be to not have any theory, to just write. As an argument, it’s stunningly naïve. All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying — and always reactionary — notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self), that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost 50 years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.