The strongest argument in favour of reading the best, most well-crafted, most challenging books you could find was made by the late Dom Moraes. We were all going to die, he said, and reading badly written books was a form of denial.
A certain amount of denial was acceptable, according to Dom, but not too much. Or you would spend your life as a reader never discovering your tastes, never being made uncomfortable, never having your beliefs challenged, living life with a narrow instead of a broad margin. Within these strictures, there was freedom: each reader was free to construct his or her own canon, however idiosyncratic or particular.
I think of Dom’s argument every time a debate erupts over the question of how literary prizes should judge books. The 2011 Booker jury, led by former MI5 chief Stella Rimington, caused ripples when Dame Stella said that her criterion would be “readability’. Her remarks fed an old argument — if bestsellers (readable, popular) reach far more readers than a great deal of literary fiction does, why should books that appeal to so few be given so much space and respect?
This year’s Booker longlist is not the most unusual or even the most daring of all time, but it is deliberately eclectic. “We were considering novels not novelists, texts not reputations,” said this year’s chair Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
The Booker longlist features Hilary Mantel, Michael Frayn and Nicola Barker alongside a clutch of first-time novelists, including India’s Jeet Thayil, whose Narcopolis made the cut. But the longlist also left out some big names, from Martin Amis to Zadie Smith: Stothard explained that he and the jury were looking beyond writers’ reputations, for books that would be read again and again, and that would be of lasting value.
This is where the readability versus lasting value argument gets a little tricky, with both sides wading into dubious logic. Bestseller lists have now been available from the 1930s onwards in the UK and the US, and what they reveal is interesting. Some pulp fiction classics last across the decades — James Hadley Chase faded out of favour after a roughly 30-year run, Jeffrey Archer and Wilbur Smith still have their devotees, Agatha Christie’s sales have been steady for over five decades. If lasting worth is the criteria, then Richard Bach and Paulo Coelho have at least as much as a claim as the dramatists. (Drama seems to have a shorter shelf life than either fiction or poetry; Shakespeare and a few others in that company excepted, few plays last beyond the three or four decade mark.)
But the popularity argument is equally dangerous, perhaps even more so in the Indian context. Thayil’s Narcopolis, for instance, doesn’t fit with the familiar tropes of the Bombay story. I didn’t review Narcopolis when it came out because the author is a personal friend, but I did make a short list of what wasn’t in his Bombay novel: a) gangsters, except in passing; b) bar girls, film extras and the film world in general; c) apartment buildings that fill in as a metaphor for the city, as they do in books by Aravind Adiga and Rohinton Mistry; d) and etc. He was reviewed with extraordinary passion, some of it bilious, for his story about addicts, seekers and ghosts. Narcopolis is an unsettling, atmospheric first novel, and it is not a comfortable or comforting book to read but it is powerful.
It doesn’t fit with any of the current crop of bestsellers from India, which now have identifiable forms, as though they belong to similar but separate joint families. One bestseller clan is intensely but myopically focused on the concerns of the rising urban middle class; another growing tribe is reworking the old Indian and chiefly Hindu myths, even if they do so in safely non-subversive, almost Brahminical ways. A third swings between self-expression through the medium of nonstop shopping — for shiny new goods or brides or grooms-with a detour into nonstop dieting.
The problem with using popularity as an index of worth is that popular books often make a strong but shallow impression. Popular fiction is often as influential, and as fleeting, as an Internet meme: yesterday’s dancing baby craze is tomorrow’s LOLcat obsession, and will be overtaken by something as intense but ephemeral eventually.
This year’s Booker jury was trying to nail down a slippery truth about reading and books. The most popular books are inspirational, The Secret touching as many if not more lives than A Hundred Years of Solitude. But what they inspire people to do is to change their wardrobes, or perhaps their bank balances, or at most their habits. Really good books work differently; like viruses, they change you at the level of DNA. That is what this year’s Booker longlist is trying to do, and if even four books on the list succeed, they’ll have done their job.