I’m used to having dark thoughts about literary fiction. I read some of the last Booker Shortlist and enjoyed a few of the books, but hated the book that won (The Luminaries).

As we know, I am the kind of reader that needs something exciting to be happening. I don’t care what the curtain ties in the room look like, or what they tell us about the main character, unless he is about to be strangled with them…

Anyway I have resolved to read some past Booker Prize winners this month, and I think I’ve got a pretty good selection.

The Man Booker Prize

The Booker has been around since 1969 and is one of the highest accolades a book can receive. To qualify for the longlist, the book has to be a full length novel, written in English and published in the UK.

In preparation for the Booker month, I did some research into past award winners (and not just of the Bookers) and noticed that the same names kept winning, or reaching the long/short lists. I got the impression that certain authors must have amazing agents, or that the prize is (or was in the past) handed around a group of friends.

I’m not the only one to have thought that, this excerpt is from the Guardian in 2001:

“A wave of invective rolled over the literary world last month when the novelist and sometime Booker prize judge AL Kennedy branded the award “a pile of crooked nonsense”. The winner, she said, was invariably determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. Nor was she content with rubbishing the prize; her fellow panellists in 1996 got it in the neck too. “I read the 300 novels and no other bastard [on the panel] did.””

Ouch!

I don’t know whether that was an accurate observation or not. What I do know is that I place more stock in popular opinion than that of a panel (for example, for movie awards I prefer the Empire Awards to The OSCARS because it’s the audience that votes for the winner).

Of course, popular opinion (such as sales figures) can be wrong – I’m looking at you 50 Shades and Da Vinci Code…

What I’ll be reading

It’s really five books I’m going to try and read this month.

  1. The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker (The last book, The Ghost Road was the 1995 winner, but I need to read the first two books as well).
  2. Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey (1988 winner).
  3. Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (2003 winner).

I chose the Regeneration Trilogy and Vernon God Little because the subject matters appealed to me. I’m not convinced that Oscar and Lucinda will be my cup of tea, but I’ll give it a go.

Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction

I don’t understand the rivalry between literary and genre fiction. I’ve read some monumentally dull literary fiction books, but I’ve also read some terrible genre fiction.

There are literary books I love, like A Fraction of the Whole and Wolf Hall. There are also genre classics (well I think so) such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.

But the literary vs genre debate rages on. Here are a few recent examples of articles/debates.

Read all the genres!

As J Robert Lennon argues, writers should immerse themselves in culture. Literary writers should read genre, and genre writers should read literary works. There’s always something that each can learn from the other.

Literary readers are just better people

Science has proved that this is so, finding that readers of literary fiction were more empathetic in tests than those given genre books to read.

Sorry, but I have to call bullshit on this one. Mark Liberman has a great post on why this study is flawed.

The researchers need to consider certain factors, such as nature and nurture. Some people are naturally more empathic than others are.

Empathetic people don’t wonder the world sobbing into their handkerchiefs about the suffering of their fellow man. Tests conclude that I, freakish genre writer/reader, am very empathic. Yes I felt devoid of empathy after reading Gone Girl, but I didn’t go out and look for a bloke to manipulate and torture.

Writing as an art form

Is writing an art form? I guess it can be for some. I see fiction writing as storytelling, which is why, I suppose, I’m a genre writer at heart.

When I think of storytelling, I think of great characters, an interesting plot, and people sitting on the edge of their seats needing to find out what happens next.

The literary fiction that I find the dullest is the stream of consciousness kind – the kind where someone is having an existential crisis for 400 pages. I sometimes feel that dozens of pages of character introspective can be replaced with one line of dialogue and a raised eyebrow.

The point is, literary and genre books each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Neither is intrinsically better than the other, or more morally superior. A good story is a good story, despite the label publishers choose to give it.