The Booker Prize nominations increase the suspicion that the novel’s death is imminent, writes Paul Fennessy
CAN PEOPLE REALLY tell the difference between the authors Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters? When the Man Booker Prize nominations were made known last week, extensive media coverage was granted to the event. The Irish Times devoted a Page three article to the announcement, while several other prominent publications also focused heavily on its proceedings.
Nonetheless, it could legitimately be questioned whether the depth of the coverage equated with the degree of public interest in the story. After all, nowadays literature (at least, the type of novels favoured by Booker judges) is a decidedly niche subject – a status confirmed by the poor sales of each of this year’s nominees.
“Column inches dedicated to book reviews have dwindled in recent years and sales have simultaneously suffered”
Moreover, the market for novels grows more perilous by the day. Column inches dedicated to book reviews have dwindled in recent years and sales have simultaneously suffered. While it is commonplace that the most popular products in an industry are invariably not singled out for prestigious awards, as is often the case with Oscars and Grammys, acclaimed books have acquired a particular level of obscurity.
The central reason for the discernible lack of interest in the Booker process can be attributed to the fact that people rarely, if ever, take the time to read modern novels. More often than not, bestseller lists are filled with innumerable celebrity memoirs.
Furthermore, lists are increasingly beginning to appear in newspapers with titles such as ‘the top ten books people lie about reading’.
The fact that people are willing to concoct such blatant falsities, rather than simply reading the said novel, is a telling sign of the times. Many UCD English students are hardly strangers to this phenomenon either and if even they neglect to read comprehensively, then there is surely little hope for the average man on the street.
While one of the primary reasons for this literary crisis is the added distractions heralded by the Facebook generation, there are arguably other underlying problems that are partly accountable.
Perhaps the authors themselves are not entirely blameless in the context of the crisis. Topics of the novels shortlisted – such as Mantel’s story focusing on Henry VIII’s aide – were never likely to have garnered mainstream attention, nor were they designed for this purpose.
“Rather than relentlessly criticising them, perhaps their more esteemed peers could learn from such methods”
One possible conclusion therefore is that the contemporary world of serious literature is one irrevocably detached from reality and the popular consensus.
Such claims were reinforced by the reaction that met the decision by the National Book Awards committee in 2003 to honour Stephen King for his contribution to American letters. Several preeminent members of the literati voiced their outrage at the fact that such a popular and, by their assessment, lowbrow author should be unabashedly venerated.
However, in his acceptance speech, King retorted by accusing many contemporary novelists of merely aiming to acquire “social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture”.
Similarly, in an interview published last week, Nick Hornby – another commercially successful writer who is regularly dismissed by critics – accused the majority of modern authors of operating on “the margins of a cultural conversation.”
Therefore, writers such as Hornby and King have shown that it is possible to write in an intelligent and engaging fashion that allows scope for a sizeable readership. Rather than relentlessly criticising them, perhaps their more esteemed peers could learn from such methods.
At the moment however, many of the literati essentially come across as smug, self-satisfied egotists with a thinly veiled contempt for the general public.
On a related note, Declan Kiberd wrote in his most recent work – Ulysses and Us – that Joyce’s most renowned novel “took shape in a world which had known for the first time the possibilities of mass literacy and the emergence of working men’s reading libraries”. However, like this masterpiece, modern literature in general seems fated to be ignored indefinitely, despite our increasing levels of education and supposed sophistication.