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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Booker Prize vs. Literature Prize: how self-appointed guardians of "art" just don't get it

As the entire literary world knows by now, Julian Barnes has won the Man Booker Prize. I haven't read any of the Booker shortlist this year so I can't judge whether his was the best, but he's a damn good writer and many pundits are saying this is more of a lifetime achievement award for him.

Also in the news is the whole kerfuffle over a rival prize being launched, The Literature Prize. Backers of the new prize claim this needed to be done because the Booker "now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement".

The Booker people fired back that they don't see how those two things are mutually exclusive.

The Literature Prize people said that, "a space has opened up for a new prize which is unequivocally about excellence - even if that sometimes means shortlisted books are more challenging and don't necessarily fall under the easy description of readable."

OK, while I may not write for the TLS or be on the Booker shortlist, let me just weigh in here. The purpose of writing is communication! Too much self-styled "literature" these days is overly elaborate prose with no center, no meaning. It's tinsel, pretty but essentially worthless. MFA programs are churning out writers by the thousand every year who have no real idea what makes a good novel, so they emphasize style or substance.  They're poseurs, almost exclusively upper middle class, with little or no real-world experience. Trust me, I've met plenty. I've been to the readings. I've read the books and journals. I gave that whole world a chance. Really, I tried.

One successful travel writer and author I know graduated from a leading MFA program and complained that they never discussed plot in her classes! She had to learn how to do that by actually (gasp!) reading and writing a lot.

I don't care how much your prose shines, if you don't have a story, you don't have a novel. And if you can't make a reasonably intelligent reader understand what the fuck you're trying to say, you're not a writer.

The third interesting thing about the Booker Prize this year was the first Western to make a shortlist. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, a fellow Canadian. I'm glad to see a genre I love being accepted by the publishing elite. Here's hoping more great Westerns will be noticed by them in the future. The Sisters Brothers is now on my own personal shortlist of books to read. Expect a review here when I do.


  1. Haha, I was getting ready to say it, but you covered it there at the end. Unless I am going to get a degree, or some sort or raise/promotion, I am not going to read something that I have to study to understand.

  2. "The Nearly Unreadable Prize" must have been taken.

  3. Hey Sean,

    You've certainly gotten my attention with this post.

    I agree that's the real purpose of writing. I read somewhere that writers should strive to express, not impress.

    That's what makes your post so interesting and compelling--and that's what's integral for a good story.

    While I don't have an MFA, some of my friends do. They are darned good writers, but most likely they would be that way without an MFA.

    Thanks for getting me to think about what you wrote.


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