ONE of the Amazon reviewers of Marlon James’s winning Brief History of Seven Killings said that: “If you are interested in Jamaica, corruption, sex and killings, this is a must read”. My problem is I am not interested in that kind of portrait of Jamaica, in that kind of corruption, in that kind of violence which at times is disturbingly well written. If I want to hang around on a street corner and play gangster I can do that closer to home. I don’t. And I don’t want to read about it. Another review called it a “chore”.
More charitably, I have Killings down among a small clique of recent books, which are defined by their density, by thick woolly verbal jumpers, literary milkshakes if you like. Similar might be the first translation from the Irish of Mairtin O Cadhain’s Dirty Dust which has the most wonderful, laugh out loud opening lines. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, written in a style of middle English but which has been picked up by the uber theatre talent Mark Rylance who will surely make something good of it. The only one of the genre I have included here so far is from Eimear McBride which is mercifully short compared to the others. They all belong in a category you might call prose-poetry, experiments in language or that non sequitor beloved of university courses, creative writing.
For a pre-eminent literary prize like the Man Booker I would prefer a winner that converted people to reading more books, something more predictably populist. I want it to be a best seller, not a killjoy. Over the last few years the Man Booker has yielded for me a couple of favourite classics, neither of which won, one from Ruth Ozeki and one from Patrick deWitt. The last winner that I have included here so far was from 2007 by Anne Enright.
Too many people I suspect are daunted by the sheer act of reading these days, of giving up time and other things to invest in a book. If you look at the bestseller lists, you notice how many are serials, repeats of the same thing, like favourite TV series. They are crimos and love stories or girls coming of age. Readers are voting to find their favoured universe and inhabit it. You probably do not want to live in any of this year’s shortlisted books except possibly Spool of Blue Thread which is meant to be an ambling long read of a comfortable slice of Americana.
The others could have used some help. For me this is not a criticism of the writing – in sheer writing terms the words in this selection of books have been very much to the fore – but of the process. There is a rush to print. Each of the novels would have benefited from a moment’s pause, the skills of an editor, to focus, adjust, trim, tweak, and, yes, cut, but this is a skill publishers seemingly no longer feel they need and/or we have a generation of very timid editors indeed. Given how much money is potentially at stake (for a relatively small investment in most novels), this lack of care and attention seems absurd. The process has become relentless to the point that the product is shoddily produced, but no matter there will be another bus along soon and one after that and maybe that will work…no matter that shirts are not tucked in, shoelaces not tied, buttons are undone.
A patriotic concern is that only one of the short list, the tough love of Sunjeev Sahota’s Runaways deals with UK issues and concerns. Does this reflect a wider inarticulation of the debates or non debates in this country, are we mugged by too much information and stifling our writers from explaining the surrounding context? Or are we not commissioning them to do so? We are, we are invited to think, happy to wrap ourselves in a blanket of BBC dross. Or maybe like TV news we, or in this case the judges, prefer to look at things father away from home?
Of course you may disagree but the books listed here as in the 101 represent a more dynamic set of literary values. You can say that is a personal, subjective judgement. I cannot object, but I have the sense that I am not alone. Brooklyn is now coming out as a fim. Hurrah! Killings, I am afraid, will not.