Literary novels and the Counter-Reformation

The priests of the Temple of Literature have been issuing instruction, as the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced. John Walsh, writing in the Independent, was relieved by what he saw as the return of the literary novel. Since it may not be immediately apparent what such an object might be, he helpfully explains:

‘You can recognise the literary novel by its lack of interest in a plot.’

This is clearly intended to be a recommendation, not satire, as he goes on to argue how much better novels are when they avoid narrative. If only Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy were alive today: how much better would they write, weaned from their childish dependence on stories. And imagine how the Odyssey, the plays of Shakespeare or the Thousand and One Nights might be similarly improved.

The best book I know about the state of contemporary Britain is Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, though it was written 140 years ago. The corruption of business, politics and the media is told in a gripping story from which flows just the ‘evocation of a consciousness’ that Walsh wants in a literary novel. Robert Maxwell would certainly have sued for libel over his precise portrayal as Augustus Melmotte, if Trollope hadn’t the foresight to die 40 years before his creation’s birth. But couldn’t Trollope have resisted the temptation to make a story of it?

Announcing the Booker shortlist, Sir Peter Stothard – chair of the judges and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – explained that he wanted to avoid the possibility that anybody might read one of the books and say ‘Wow, I loved it, it’s terrific’.

“I’m afraid quite a lot of what counts for criticism these days is of that sort: how many stars did it get? Did I have a good time? Would my children like it? It is opinion masquerading as literary criticism,”.

Well, that’s telling them. That should put all those uppity reading group members in their place. It’s high time they learned to read properly. Put away the tea and biscuits, re-cork the wine. This discussion should be run like an Oxford seminar or there’ll be no chance of stifling the reader’s enjoyment. As Bob Dylan once sang,

“You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to – Or you don’t dance at all”

Mary_Cassatt_The_Reader_1877A few years ago, John Carey wrote a fine but contested book called What Good Are the Arts? In it, he argued that, as there is no way of knowing another person’s experience, there can be no way of knowing that what one person gets from opera is better than what another gets from pop.

Some books are better than others; just as some actions and some people are better than others. Reasons can be advanced to justify such claims. I could explain at length why I admire The Way We Live Now, and say why I think it is better than many other books. I might even use some of the technique Peter Stothard would recognise as literary criticism to do it. But it would not make it so. My opinion would still be an opinion, which others would be free to share or not. To claim that kind of truth for artistic judgements is a simple category error.

The ex cathedra pronouncements that have accompanied the 2012 Booker shortlist are little more than the magisterium grabbing after its lost cultural authority. If they want to launch a cultural counter-reformation they will need better strategies and better arguments than these.

And they might need better platforms from which to claim the high ground. Even Trollope did not anticipate one particular plot twist – that Rupert Murdoch would own the Times Literary Supplement. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.