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The Prize is Right?
Category: Writing

When the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced as Anna Burns’ novel Milkman, my curiosity was aroused, not so much by the book, but by the comments of chief judge Kwame Anthony Appiah. He said that the book was a challenge, “but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging”. He added that Milkman is “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”.

My curiosity was satisfied by Allison Pearson’s excellent and very balanced Daily Telegraph article, which not only laid bare the body of this strange work, but also buried it.

Experimental novel Milkman is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles and narrated by an 18-year-old girl who finds herself pursued by a sinister, much older paramilitary figure, the Milkman of the title. Anna Burns writes in long paragraphs and there are no names. Instead, the narrator is known as “middle sister”, while other characters are “third brother-in-law” or “first brother-in-law” and a chirpy, car-obsessed “maybe-boyfriend”. Even the book’s title is a dark joke: the IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates to doors at the corner of every street.

Allison considers herself a rather good and passionate reader, but judges the novel as “undeniably hard work” and not exactly the kind booksellers expect to fly off the shelves. She also takes issue with Appiah’s comment of “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”, being of the firm opinion that you shouldn’t need to persist with a great book, you shouldn’t be able to put it down. I echo the comments of the last speaker.

So why did what sounds like a real clunker win one of literature’s richest prizes? When Booker McConnell established the award in 1969, it was open to British, Commonwealth and South African writers. In 2002, the Man investment group took over sponsorship and increased the prize from £21,000 to £50,000. Most controversially, in 2013, eligibility was broadened to any English-language novel. To quote Allison once more: “it wasn’t hard to foresee what would happen when the juggernaut of US creative writing was allowed to bear down on a Morris Minor”. Since then two Americans have won, and the longlist and shortlist are packed with US novelists. There were two excellent US novels on the 2018 shortlist, one the bookies’ favourite, but with a prize now fending off accusations of American dominance, neither could be adjudged the winner.

Allison: “Not only is Milkman not the best book on the shortlist, it’s not even the best book on the longlist where Warlight cast its spectral magic and Normal People told a love story that had critics swooning”.

The Booker Prize seems to have been racked with controversy from the beginning. Winner of the 1994 award, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late provoked a storm of criticism. Judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger declared it “a disgrace” and “crap”. WH Smith’s marketing manager condemned it as “an embarrassment to the whole book trade”. It’s one of a long line.

Judges are not simply the same old faces. Each year, an advisory committee is formed which includes a writer, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. The committee selects the judges from amongst leading literary critics, writers, academics and important public figures. Rarely does any judge sit a second time. But many in the literary world cast serious doubts on the ability of a small number of insiders to choose a ‘best book’. The Guardian introduced the "Not the Booker Prize", voted for by readers, partly as a reaction to the system.

Literary prizes should be awarded to the best works. Period. We can do better.

The Ace of Clubs?


 

With their propensity to form groups, it might be tempting to think that book clubs are a purely British institution, but I’ll wager that they’re as popular in Liège or Livorno as Little Snoring.

Are such clubs purely about reading and critiquing books, or is it the camaraderie of the group? The chance for expats to chat freely in their own language rather than a foreign one? The wine served during the meeting? The lunch afterwards? All of those?

For retirees, they afford a vital degree of stimulation. Once we hang up our boots, it’s fitting that we slough off the pressures and diktats of a busy career, but it’s all too easy to switch off completely and let the world slide gently by. The brain is a muscle like any other, demanding stimulation and exercise to keep cognitive powers and memory in peak condition and escape atrophy.

The raison d’être of a club is to steer people into reading books that they might not otherwise have read, or indeed, books which were hitherto totally unknown. The meeting to critique the chosen volume is equally valuable, because the responses come from a plethora of angles. Members often admit to re-reading a book from a different perspective as a consequence of the critique.

For me as a writer, being channelled into reading a variety of styles is fuel to my creative boiler. According to Stephen King: 'If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.'

The first book I had to read was AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’. It was a heavy read, both literally and metaphorically, at 511 pages. The story is good and introduced me to metafiction, where the reader is constantly reminded that they’re viewing a fictional work. As to whether it merits Time magazine’s rating of being one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, well, the jury’s still out.

In stark contrast, next in line was ‘This Is Going to Hurt’, the diaries of a doctor who climbed the greasy pole to senior registrar, then quit. Not for the squeamish nor your maiden aunt, it’s sad, poignant and hilariously funny in equal proportions. It sounds a loud hurrah for those on the front line and an even louder raspberry for National Health Service management.  Above all, it’s eminently readable, a worthy Book of the Year.

Last but not least is the current novel, ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. For the first few pages, I wasn’t sure, then it gripped me. The book chronicles the life of Count Alexander Rostov from after the Revolution until the 1960s. Hauled before the Emergency Committee in 1922, he’s placed under house arrest in Moscow’s exclusive Metropol hotel where he lives on pain of death, but condemned to a frowsty garret rather than his normal luxury suite. Despite covering one of the most savage and destructive periods in Soviet history, the book is utterly charming, the storylines enchanting. Author Amor Towles is extraordinarily well read, with effortless references to literature of every genre and every nation.

Take my tip. If you want to be a better writer, join a book club.

Will IT destroy us?
Category: Writing

A glance at history will show how so many discoveries started out as a boon and mutated into a bane.

 

Antibiotics were one of our finest medical breakthroughs. Used correctly, they still would be, but overprescription has led nature to develop infections resistant to any drug. Our saviour is suddenly potentially lethal.

 

Is IT the next antibiotics? Exponential growth of a connected and highly complex world offers myriad vulnerabilities to the unscrupulous. The ransomware attacks brought the UK National Health Service and giant corporations to their knees until solutions could be found. The next war has already started, devoid of bombs and bullets. Instead, some anonymous hacker, armed with a keyboard and mouse, can black out a country’s electricity supply at the touch of a button.

 

The hugely negative impact on society has hit the spotlight with the Facebook scandal. The tech giants have at last been outed as amoral profit seekers, pushing their technologies even when they knew of the dangers. Unfettered and unregulated, they have merely shrugged their shoulders at any suggestion that with power comes responsibility for the millions whose personal data has been violated.

 

A new individual morality – or is that immorality? – has surfaced. Many see nothing wrong in cyber bullying or hurling vile abuse across the ether that they would not countenance face to face. Taxed with the damage or even death that they have caused, such trolls remain unmoved. Somehow in their eyes, the remoteness of the attacks absolves them of any blame.

 

Today’s generation are born tech-savvy, but there is a growing realisation that screen addiction is damaging their learning abilities, their social skills and denying them a normal childhood. The head of one of UK’s best schools is in the van of a movement to ban screens in school, stating: ‘Digital devices have no place in childhood’.

 

For me, the greatest threat is as yet lurking in the wings. It is artificial intelligence, AI. These systems that self-learn and correct their own mistakes are poised to revolutionise life’s every facet. AI is at the heart of an upsurge in driverless vehicles that are supposedly programmed to recognise every hazard and increase their vocabulary by experience. Already they have caused two deaths because of their inability to recognise a danger and the driver’s to retake control in time.

 

Already too, scenarios are presaged where almost every task is undertaken by AI machines and virtually nobody works. Imagine the devastating impact on a world where you cannot earn a living. Who will provide the money for your needs and what will happen to our social structures and interactions?

 

The significant danger of AI is that the machines eventually take over and refuse any outside instructions. Robert Harris’ spine-chilling novel ‘The Fear Index’ graphically illustrates that very eventuality. Unless governments act immediately to regulate and contain AI, 1984 will become a reality.

 

I fear for mankind.

 

 

 

 

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