The Nature of the Novel

I was interested to hear the Chair of the Man Booker Prize Judges – Dame Stella Rimington’s ideas about the nature of the novel last night in her speech at the Award ceremony.

She said:

 This year I have attracted some opprobrium by mentioning the dread word ‘˜readability’ – taken by some to mean that we were prioritizing easy reading against quality, or, as some put it, that we were dumbing down. That was certainly not our intention and I don’t believe that’s what we’ve done. But it does raise the interesting question – what’s a novel for? For me it’s to be read.

Read, enjoyed, marvelled at, thought about and even learned from. But definitely enjoyed, because it’s true of most people – that if they don’t enjoy a book, they’ll put it down unread. People enjoy very different things, of course, but I’m delighted that our shortlist has sold so well – and that very many people are telling us that they’re enjoying reading the books.

But for some, the sales seem to be a cause for anxiety. So clearly they must think a novel is for something different.

The debate our shortlist has created takes me back to when I was a student of English Literature at Edinburgh University in the ‘˜50s. It was just a few years after F R Leavis had published ‘˜The Great Tradition’, in which he set out his criteria for the great novel: ‘˜a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life and a marked moral intensity’ – what’s wrong with that?

I agree with her definition. What is wrong with being readable? For me a novel must be readable in the first place, because why plough through books that you’re not enjoying or learning anything from?  In the second place it must also be one that makes me think – gives me new ideas or new ways of looking at things, and finally if it’s one that takes me out of myself, transports to me to another time or place it’s one to marvel at and treasure.

I haven’t read any of this year’s shortlisted books because, apart from the winner Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – they didn’t really appeal to me. But after watching BBC2’s fascinating programme on The Culture Show‘Britain’s Biggest Book Prize: A Village Decides (Again)‘, earlier last night, in which the villagers of Comrie in the Highlands voted Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English as their winning book, I’m encouraged to give that one a go too.

5 thoughts on “The Nature of the Novel

  1. Margaret – Well-taken point about readability! If a novel doesn’t engage the reader and give her or him something to think about, something to enjoy, etc.., the reader is going to lose interest. Quickly.


  2. Readability is different for different people. I think the reaction is to ideas people have about what readability says about themselves and others. They “read” a whole lot into the word.


  3. I agree as well, I need to be able to enjoy my read, weather it’s fiction or fact. Nothing is more boring than a book you “have to read”. I haven’t even glanced at the ‘books of the year’ still busy with last years adventures. Thanks Margaret.


  4. Oh yes readability is most important. I have given up on worthy tomes that are dull as dishwater. I’ve only read one of this year’s shortlist – Snowdrops which I thought boring but it was quite readable in a way that Booker books often aren’t. I’m on the very long queue at my library to read Barnes’ book – might have to splash out on a copy now 🙂


  5. Readability is #1 for me. I don’t care if I’m reading fiction or nonfiction, if I don’t enjoy the reading, forget it, I’m on to the next book. Having said that, I have a big problem with books that win big prizes. When I succumb to the lure to read it, most of the time I just don’t “get it.” I always wonder what the judges were thinking. Are they just too jaded about books or are there publishing politics involved, or what?


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