Saturday, 22 October 2011
Reading and Readability
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
This week I watched the Man Booker Prize. I am ashamed to say that I haven't followed the debates this year or read any of the books - I have been a bit busy working - so I have come to this topic rather late. This year's controversy apparently arose from Dame Stella Rimmington's use of the word "readability" as one of the criteria for which the judges were looking. I think that the moment for this debate has probably passed now that winner Julian Barnes sagely concluded that quality and readability should be indistinguishable - but that isn't going to stop me blithely and belatedly weighing in on this debate.
My Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines something that is readable as being "interesting or pleasant to read." To think that "readability" is not an essential criteria for a book is incomprehensible to me. When did calling a book "readable" become a perjorative term, and when was it decided that the Man Booker Prize should go to a book that is boring and unpleasant?
The implications of thinking that the Man Booker judges should not be looking for readability as one of their criteria seem to me to be twofold. This implies that a book that is deemed to have literary merit should not be pleasurable; it should be a chore to read. This is the cough mixture side to the argument: if something is good for you, then it will probably be horrible. The converse assumption is that if something is "readable," then it lacks quality and intellectual worth. This is the chocolate side to the argument: if something is pleasurable then it is probably bad for you.
This notion is, of course, largely correct for food and totally spurious for literature. Many of the books that we now think of as being "classics" were populist works of their time - Dickens as an obvious example - and are eminently readable. When I mentioned this debate on Twitter, a couple of friends and wise tweeters (twits?), Gill and Joanne, joined in the discussion to praise George Orwell's readability. Anyone who wants to write would do well to read his brilliant article "Politics and the English Language." That I haven't re-read it for years is probably painfully obvious to anyone who reads this blog, as I am sure that I commit many of the stylistic sins that he decries. Gill put it well in a tweet when she said that "literature must be accessible to communicate its ideas," and Orwell's writing is a perfect example of writing that is both "readable" and has literary merit.
I don't believe that anyone benefits from the belief that the Man Booker Prize should not be looking for readability: not the reputation of the prize itself; not its winners and nominees, and not the publishing industry as a whole. A book is by definition intended to be read, otherwise surely it is a failure in its own terms. The Man Booker Prize would likely become defunct if it were to gain the reputation of being awarded to books that no-one wants to read, and would be the death of sales to an author who wins it. No author wants not to be read when they set out to write a novel.
I think that it is an act of intellectual snobbery to argue that "readability" should not be an aim of quality fiction. This is a declaration that has very little to do with the book itself, and everything to do with the person putting forward that argument and their need to assert intellectual superiority. A person who attempts to downplay the value of readability in a novel is essentially declaring themselves to be pure intellect and above such frivolities as reading pleasure. When asked, they would probably say that their favourite piece of writing is "Finnegan's Wake," which I am sure is a work of genius, but is effectively unreadable (and I write those words as someone who likes "Ulysses").
I am more inclined to feel that all great books are "readable." Only bad books are unreadable. With the possible exception of "Finnegan's Wake."