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The Ordinary Reader: Trading Blows Over The Booker Prize
Houman Barekat , November 4th, 2018 11:28

Old debates become a cipher for more fractious contemporary currents in the latest row over the Man Booker Prize 2018

Custom dictates that every once in a while the publishing world must have an earnest discussion about whether formally ‘difficult’ literary fiction is in some sense inimical to democracy. The awarding of this year’s Man Booker Prize to Anna Burns’ Milkman briefly rekindled this tedious debate. By most accounts Milkman is not a particularly difficult read, but that is beside the point: it is written in a style superficially reminiscent of the early twentieth-century modernists, and therefore occupies the category still unaccountably known as ‘experimental’ fiction. That this kind of novel is often deemed to be inherently difficult speaks to the deep-seated cultural conservatism of the literary establishment, channeling a profoundly misanthropic pessimism about the inclinations and capabilities of the average reader.

These prejudices were exemplified in the nonplussed write-ups that appeared in the Telegraph and the Times in the wake of Milkman’s Booker triumph last week. These managed to simultaneously hold seemingly contradictory positions: that the book was both poorly executed and, at the same time, too advanced for the ordinary reader. There was even a suggestion that the judges had wilfully selected a challenging book out of some vague contrarian impulse, and that this tells us something about the archetypal consumer of prize-winning literary fiction – smug, self-satisfied, a bit pretentious. In fairness, matters certainly weren’t helped by the fact that one of the Booker judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, felt the need to liken reading Milkman to scaling Mount Snowdon.

This was not a case of gratuitous trolling. The author of the Times piece is one of the sharpest young literary critics around; his piece, which evidently chimed with many readers, gave expression to a widespread scepticism towards anything resembling neo-modernist prose. I have written elsewhere about English literary culture’s mistrust of formally daring fiction, the reasons for which are complex and historical. One charge often levelled against 21st-century ‘experimental’ writing is that it is unoriginal – a rehashing of innovations that are a century old. Having reviewed several contemporary novels in this genre, I concur that some of them can indeed be a tad derivative. Nevertheless it is conspicuous that the critical bar for originality seems to be set a great deal higher for these books than for the more conventional realist novels that dominate the literary marketplace. The latter have an awful lot of leeway when it comes to rehearsing tired tropes or hackneyed stylistic affectations; the ‘experimental’ novel, by contrast, is presumed to be derivative until proven otherwise.

Questions of originality aside, the detractors’ chief grievance against such works is that they are elitist, insofar as their difficulty renders them inaccessible. This is a very difficult case to substantiate. On the one hand, we can probably all agree in principle that it is desirable for literature to be accessible to the ordinary person; this is a worthy and democratic sentiment. The trouble arises when we try to define what we mean by the ordinary person. As the Guardian’s Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has rightly pointed out, our idea of what constitutes conventionally good prose is bound up in social class. Of Milkman’s voice-led narrative style, she observes: ‘To a normal reader, from a normal background, it reads like a girl from school trotting alongside you down the road, telling you a story. . . . if you went to public school, didn’t grow up in a working-class community and only read a certain type of novel, then yes, you might find it difficult – opaque, even.’ In other words, the tendency to construe the narrative voice as obscure or highfalutin is itself a product of schooling – far from pushing against privilege, it is in fact an assertion of privilege.

So much, then, for bashing Milkman in the name of the common man or woman. More prosaically, it seems reasonable to infer that the ‘ordinary reader’, when invoked for the purposes of doing down ‘experimental’ fiction, means simply – and somewhat self-servingly – that section of the populace that happens to have a preference for either middle-brow or conventional realist fiction. These readers may well be significantly more numerous than their James Joyce-loving counterparts, but there is no evidence to suggest that they come from a markedly different socio-economic background. It is specious to bring class into it. Moreover, there is something unpleasantly Trumpian about enlisting the rhetorical purchase of anti-elitism to help legitimate what ought to be a purely aesthetic judgement on a work of literature.

This kind of thing has a long history. In his The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey explains the rise of literary modernism thus: “The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand – and this is what they did.” It’s a seductive take, but let’s call it what it is: a reactionary conspiracy theory. This strain of paranoiac philistinism is a close cousin of the dogmatic authoritarianism that informed Soviet Union’s culture ministry in its work of vetting cultural output by reference to its perceived intelligibility to the ordinary worker – a theme explored in Julian Barnes’ 2016 novel, The Noise of Time. Social realism was approved of and encouraged; modernism was deemed bourgeois, decadent and inherently suspect. A century on, it seems not much has changed. In the age of Trump and Brexit, anti-intellectualism masquerading as commonsensical reasonableness is very much the order of the day.

It is possible that the commercial vagaries of the reviewing business are playing some part in dragging the books pages into the populist mire: as the books pages shrink, literary editors may find themselves increasingly incentivised to publish sensationalist content that replicates the cantankerous emotive timbre of rabble-rousing, ‘click-bait’ opinion journalism. That the debate over this year’s Man Booker Prize was a small proxy conflict in our ongoing culture wars was underlined by the intervention of Times columnist Giles Coren, who this week took time out from baiting feminists and trans people to declare that he had little time for Burns’ “fancy schmancy” prose. If you are especially credulous, this may strike you as a refreshingly straight-talking takedown of literary pretentiousness. Alternatively, you’ll see a highly educated man playing dumb to get clicks. Meanwhile the reading public are buying the book in droves. They will make up their own minds.

The Milkman, by Anna Burns, is the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize