This year the Booker judges have caused a stir by claiming they are selecting books with ‘readability’ over those with ‘quality’. Predictably, this has caused a backlash amongst the literati: why, asks Andrew Motion, should readability be assumed to be different in kind from quality? To raise a false opposition between the two is ‘a pernicious and a dangerous thing’. Likewise, literary agent, Andrew Kidd, has announced he will be launching a new literary prize, one whose sole criterion is ‘excellence’.
The basic anti-Booker argument, if we accept the current terms of the debate, is surely irrefutable. If the whole point of awarding a literary prize is to celebrate (and publicize) an outstanding book, why would you award it to a lesser book which happens to be ‘readable’? So far so obvious. The problems begin to arise, however, when we sit down and ask ourselves the meaning of the terms being bandied about: namely, ‘readability’ and ‘excellence’.
It was once said of Thomas Hardy that he couldn’t write, which, as Terry Eagleton has observed, is a rather major disadvantage for a novelist. In the current context, we might say that for a book to be unreadable is a similarly unfortunate handicap, given that the point of a book is that it be read. What ‘readable’ means here, then, is clearly something different from the capacity optically to compute a series of signs which are combined in sentences and paragraphs. Any book is ‘readable’ in this sense, from Spot the Dog to Finnegans Wake. And yet, in another sense, the latter is clearly not as ‘readable’ as the former. Spot the Dog has a clear linear narrative; it is generally not self-reflexive; since its aim is to delight and to educate children it tends to go easy on the puns, and it almost certainly doesn’t aim to destroy a given language from the inside in the way that Joyce does. In other words, Spot the Dog conforms to conventional standards of plot construction with a clear beginning, middle and an end, and is in that sense ‘readable’ because conformable to unwritten standards of narrative normality. Readibility, then, is a matter of convention and of form.
A convention, says Raymond Williams, is a coming-together, a technique and a tacit agreement, a series of unspoken presuppositions about how and why a work has been produced, how it is to be used and how it is to be received. A dominant convention is the hegemon of the literary-formal world. Today, arguably, the Western literary hegemon remains a variation on the naturalist-cum-realist novel: this is what the Booker Prize means by ‘readable’. ‘Unreadable’, by contrast, would be any variation upon the modernist and postmodernist attempt to undermine the international dominance of this particular form and of all the implicit values and stances on life which are its concomitants.
When the literati then pipe up in the name of ‘excellence’ they implicitly claim that modernist and postmodernist literary experimentations are just as – and probably more – ‘excellent’ than traditional realist novels (or at least those novels which remain, relatively speaking, non-self-reflexive and which spin a good yarn). But what do they mean by ‘excellent’? Here the old bogeyman of Aesthetic Value – that monster that lurks under the beds of first-year Literature students – raises its ugly dead-white-male head. What is literary excellence and who possesses the power to define it?
A short historical detour is in order. Back in classical antiquity there existed – within rhetoric and to some extent within poetics – a series of communally shared standards by which what counted as fine speaking and fine writing could be ascertained. In Aristotle, for example, linguistic excellence is usually a series of golden means: neither too plain nor too metaphorical, phrases neither too long nor too short, and so on. Essentially, the community of slave-owning men (not women) conformed to and internalised these conventions of fine speaking and attempted to embody them in their own speaking and writing. But – long story short – by the time of modernity the classical polis and the Roman legal system, the social forms of which rhetoric was the linguistic lifeblood, had fallen; in their place begins to arise a series of nation-states, each with its own incipient bourgeoisie. In overthrowing the ancien régime, the bourgeoisie also overthrew its communally shared standards of what counted as literary excellence. Indeed, the birth of “Literature” as such is coextensive with the breakdown of hegemonic linguistic conventions. Literature itself was twinned at birth with the crisis of ‘excellence’. The rise of the novel, and the breaking free of elocutio from the grips of the rhetorical pentad, were then part of this same process of crisis.
From this time on, changing conceptions of literary excellence have been in effect what Raymond Williams would call ‘selective traditions’: spontaneously constructed canons conforming to the interests of whatever elite intellectual minority happens to be in power at any given time. Just as a political hegemon attempts to impose a historical amnesia on its subjects, selling them the lie that things have always been like this, so the literary hegemon, the current arbiter of literary ‘excellence’, attempts to do the same.
What this ignores is the historicity of literary forms themselves. Each literary form is the embodiment of particular historical experiences. Realism and naturalism, for example, were part of the bourgeois cultural revolution against mystificatory narratives attributing human agency to supernatural sources; they were a cultural appendage to the economic and political overthrow of the ancien régime. In this historicist light, it doesn’t make much sense to judge as ‘excellent’ or ‘non-excellent’ a novel by Balzac or a short story by Maupassant.
So does this mean that there is no such thing as literary excellence? Not quite. The problem with the Andrew Motion/ Andrew Kidd line is that it implicitly assumes an ahistorical criterion of judgment. Likewise, those who assume that books which are self-reflexive, which question the very possibility of communication and of literature as such, which play games with formal conventions – those who assume that these books are inherently superior are similarly ahistorical in that they merely assume that a mode of literary production generated more or less with modernism is now somehow the be all and end all. Nor does it help that in practical terms such books are almost always favoured by cultural elites rather than the reading public at large. It is thus that one publisher could claim that ‘the whole thing needs to be an utter snobfest’: here, ironically, given that liberal humanists revere books as windows onto the ‘human condition’, literary excellence becomes coextensive with a rejection of common humanity as such.
The solution is twofold. Firstly, criteria of literary judgment must be immanent to history itself. Raymond Williams’ Drama From Ibsen to Brecht points the way here: in this book, literary ‘excellence’ is nothing other than a given author working his way to a unique form capable of embodying the totality of his unique historical experience. It is the point at which a mere ‘technique’ raises itself to the level of a ‘convention’. Secondly, literary judgment must be democratised. Rather than a whole industry of Oxbridge-educated bores informing of us of the latest ‘excellent’ book (probably written by one of their friends – cf. Motion on Barnes), the public at large must be sufficiently equipped with the critical and intellectual tools necessary to the intelligent judgment of literary communications. For that is what literature is: communication – even when, in the likes of Beckett, it is about the impossible necessity of communicating anything at all. Writing is a human act like any other; to judge it we must draw on the same resources by which we judge all human acts.