Archive for May 20th, 2012

Participants: Dame Stella Rimington, thriller author and Chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in 2011; Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian; Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation; and Chip Rolley, SWF artistic director.

As chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington caused a bit of a brouhaha when she suggested that the shortlisted books – and thus the eventual winner – should be ‘readable’.  Many saw this as an assault on the prize’s literary status, a ‘dumbing down’ as it were.  Chip Rolley kicked off this session by asking her what she meant.  She responded by saying that perhaps she’d used the wrong word, that maybe ‘accessible’ would have been a better choice.  She didn’t mean to suggest that it need be populist or simple.  Rather, good books should be true to itself, relevant, something that is bought and read rather than bought and put on a shelf, like Ulysses.  There are no guidelines given the Booker judges apart from that the winner should be the ‘best book published in the year’.  In 2011 there were 138 books submitted to the judges, which they have to read in only a few months, owing to the need to select the longlist.  For any reader this is a herculean task.  Publishers are only allowed two books each to submit, although there are other avenues (previous winners and those requested by the judges among them).  So there is a filtering of books at the publisher level, which is why other genres – a term which is an unhelpful wall in the view of James – do not get submitted.

But is accessible a better word?  Slightly, said Romei, though Rolley said Jeanette Winterson, also a SWF attendee this year, who was scathing in her views of Rimington’s ‘readability’ was of the view: ‘what is wrong with difficult?’  She wanted a writer’s language to expand her mind.

James said that all forms of writing when done well have more in common than might be suspected.  He quoted Winston Chruchill’s wonderful speeches (and gave hilarious management-speak versions alongside) as a means of underlying his point.  Great writing can be simple and direct and inclusive.

Romei, a fan of Ulysses and Moby Dick, spoke about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (see my review) and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies (review forthcoming), which stand out as both challenging reads – owing to cast of characters – as well as being cracking reads.  They ‘zip along’ – a reference to one of Rimington’s fellow judge’s comments.

James loves being challenged, but not being bored, to which Rimington said she bought Ulysses and got through the first few pages and found it was not giving her anything back, so on the shelf it went.  Romei said that listening to Ulysses was the ticket, something he likened it to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, another difficult read with many allusions, but which satisfied him because he was the sort of person who liked looking those references up.  (He also highlighted the i-phone/i-pad app of The Wasteland, which will please Sue of Whispering Gums who has highlighted her pleasure with the same app on her blog.)  Part of reading is the learning, said Romei.

Rimington said that a book should be enjoyable.  When asked by an audience member what makes a good story, she said ‘change’ was key.  She talked about Julian Barnes’ Boooker winner, The Sense of an Ending, (my review coming very soon), in which we start with a seemingly boring old man but realise he’s incredibly complex as we move through the story.  James said that there needs to be shape and good characters, as well as what Elizabthe Jolly described as ‘some central mischief’ that animates the story.  He wondered whether literary prizes were somewhat past their best, to which Romei quickly countered that he was against taking ‘stuff’ away from writers, that if anything there should be more of it.

For all of Rimington’s controversial comments, the one thing that was agreed was that the Booker was awarded to a very ‘literary’ novel, something which got lost in the stoush over semantics.  What was interesting to her, was the giant unseen apparatus that survives on generating interest in the award, something that all of us Booker observers love to see.  I mean, what would a Booker shortlist be without some sort of controversy?

While a thoughtful debate, it wasn’t quite as lively as it might have been.  Perhaps we needed Jeanette Winterson on stage too.  Now that would have been interesting!


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I’ll say this up front: if you ever get a chance to see Sebastian Barry reading from one of his books, grab it with both hands.  It’s something you’ll never forget.  He did two readings in this session, one from A Long Long Way, the other from his most recent, On Canaan’s Side.  For each he rose from his chair and stepped to the front of the stage at the Sydney Theatre and gave what could be only described as a performance.  It was like watching a play, with one man performing both narration and the voices of his characters, singing a few lines of song into the bargain.

I was so mesmerised by not just his readings but by his poetic answers and ways of telling anecdotes about his writing that it’s impossible to do them justice in this blog.  But he was charming in a way that perhaps only the Irish can be, describing growing up in County Wicklow with Aunt Annie, and the inspiration for his writing, which uses family members like her to create characters.  He said he ‘wanted to make a box of Aunt Annie’, as it seems he does with so many other people, something to preserve their life, or re-create it in fiction.  Another poignant example of this was his character in The Secret Scriptures (see my review), which was a heart-wrenching story about a family member who had been sectioned and lived decades in a mental institution.  He wanted, he said, to give her back her life in a way.

When you are past fifty years old, you can hear the waterfall toward which we all head, he said.  You’ve seen your grandparents disappear over it, perhaps your parents, and the noise gets louder and louder and it’s up to you to do something.  ‘How to live’ is why he writes.  He wanted to leave something for his children that they might take in rather than the normal parental advice which would, of course, be ignored!

In talking about A Long Long Way and the impacts of war he described how he keeps a letter from a Vietnam veteran in his copy from which he read, in which that man wrote that the war he described in the book was that man’s war.  If we knew what we were sending our children off to when we send them to war we just wouldn’t do it.  History infects generations, Barry said, a theme which Kate Grenville had talked about earlier in the day as well.

I’ll wrap this up with one of his lovely thoughts, that ‘readers were the doctors of writers’.  If that’s the case, then Barry is in ship-shape condition, and long may this be so.

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