Friday, November 14, 2008

Struggling through a literary prize winner

Yesterday our book club met to discuss our latest selection, The Gathering, which was a Man Booker Prize Winner. For the first time, the entire club hated the book, and so the discussion centered on why such a work wins awards.

Having sat on an award jury (the P.K. Dick Award), I know that sometimes the winner is a default choice. If there are five books on the short list, and half the jury loves books 2 & 3 while the other half loves books 1 & 4, Book 5 will end up being the winner. Still, in the case of this novel, that's hardly enough explanation.

I usually avoid being negative in public (as on this blog) about other authors' work, but this book confounds me. I don't think, in the speculative fiction genre, that the author would have gotten away with it. The narrative is so tortured, and the story and setting so unrelentingly dark and vicious, that there needed to be a big, big inciting incident to make it all come together. And in the end, it turned out to be just another Irish dysfunctional family story, with a case of sexual abuse at its center. The book felt like one giant cliche.

So what are the judges for literary awards looking for? Character development, check. Setting, check (I guess). Plot, no check. Inner meaning, no check. Theme? You got me. I have no idea.

Maybe I should try harder to remember that readers have diverse tastes just as listeners to music do. My husband loves progressive jazz, while I like classical music. His jazz actually grates on my nerves, and makes me want to go into another room. So I suppose there are readers out there for whom The Gathering is just their cup of tea (to use another cliche). But I suspect that more copies of this book are sold because it won the Booker than because of a buzz among readers about what a great read it is!

I need to go read some Connie Willis to cleanse my literary palate!


John Lambshead said...

The Daily Mail ran a wonderful scam Where they put money-vouchers half way through the latest Booker winner sitting on shop's bookshelves. All you had to do was ring the Mail to claim the prize. Nobody rang.

Booker prize novels aren't for reading. They are to put on coffee tables when guests come round.


Dave Freer said...

This something of a hot button subject with me... It all comes down to 'Why does the prize exist?'
Now, you hear variations on 'to encourage excellence or recognise talent.' But, well that was the all, then all the award committee has to do is to write the author a nice letter and send him/her a check (or a cheque) and that is the end of it. The minute that anyone puts it in the papers, or shoves a sticker on the cover... it basically says the real purpose of this award is to commend the book to readers. And that is where it all falls down if a book is merely least objectionable to everyone on the panel, or is politically correct but unpalatable, or Fred the author rigged the voting with all his friends (you nominate me this year, and I nominate you next...) Because this is the same as the difference between working socialism and the disaster that was Albania (for example). Socialism works very well if everyone puts in their absolute best. In very small groups it actually works really well, to everyone's benefit. But as soon as people free-load on the system, or cheat, it stops working. And that -realistically - is what giving an award to drekk is. Freeloading on the reputation of that commendation. Which means that the commendation is thereafter considered at best reduced in trustworthiness and at worst means all other winners of the commentdation are also considered drekk, unread.

Quite frankly, by not considering the fact that this IS a public commendation (and therefore the book must appeal as well as have whatever other merit), the judges have done the award a dis-service, not to mention urinating on reading general.