So it's the sixth year that I have covered the Booker on here, except this year I've hardly covered it at all. Time and whim have run away with me as my reading has dashed off on a frolic of its own.
But what a strange and controversial Booker year we are in the midst of, what with internecine combat over on the Man Booker forum and then the usual bold pronouncements that the longlist has sold the most copies ever...a bit like A level results really, year on year it has to be more to prove it's doing a good job.
Now there's been all the kerfuffle and hot-under-the-collar chestnuts (let the hedgerows speak... picked this bowlful along the lane) about quality and standards, and what's literary and what's not and who decides what exactly is 'a readable book'...
"For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize's administrator and this year's judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement,"
Hmm, 'readability'...'artistic achievement'...this could get messy because now everyone out there is trying to define what that may mean. Personally I would be more inclined to make a rather foggy distinction about a book where what happens is all that happens, versus a book where most of what happens doesn't happen where and in the way that you first think it has, and that may only dawn on you days if not weeks later and you know the book is a keeper because you would read it again...and again ... muddled, yes, but I think I know what I mean.
So column inches now adding up to several miles plus a great big debate over at the Bookseller about the possibility of a new prize to uphold these standards whatever they are...
The Literature Prize, for which funding is "currently" being procured, will be awarded to the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year, with the writer's country of origin not a factor.
Hilary Mantel, talking in that recent TV interview, felt that she could never become the writer she was meant to be until she had won the ultimate recognition of the Booker Prize. That recognition meant everything to her, and I can't help but wonder about the impact of all this argy bargy on the authors. I'm sure only a small proportion of us work in such an overtly prize-driven environment... I have never won anything in about thirty years in the NHS apart from hyacinth-scented bath cubes in Friends of the Surgery raffles.
I have this sad, and I hope misplaced vision of writers out there whose writing lives may be predicated on the dream of prizes, because the industry almost demands it, and who are sitting in their writing sheds thinking...
'So what do I have to do to win this thing... to win anything...'
And feeling demoralised.
Well I suppose you've got to write a prize-winning book, but I'm not sure anyone can know what one of those might be. Literary prizes largely funded by private money will surely always be about judges various and their own personal literary background and subjective personal taste, all laced with a big dollop of compromise I suspect, so no point in second-guessing though we all love to stick an oar in.
But feel the need to fly the flag for the authors and I'm not sure many of us write actual letters to them these days, real paper ones. I'm wondering if any of you do.. or may have done in the past, and if so did you get a reply??
I'm starting to feel I should because it gave me great pleasure to write proper paper thank-you letters to all the writers who visited the dovegreyreader tent at Port Eliot Festival this year, and it's something I don't do often enough in these days of e mail.
And I wonder too... if there are any authors reading this, what does receiving a real letter mean to you??
If I wrote to an author right now, this very week, I'd be sitting here at my tiny Emily Dickinson-sized writing desk at the bedroom window. I would of course want to thank them for their book and tell them why, but I hope it wouldn't be seen as impertinent or patronizing to then urge them not to be downhearted about all this Booker (and Literary Prize) shenanigans, which all seems in danger of own-goaling and damp squibbing itself from where I'm sitting (which is a very long way away). I'd want to say please just ignore this prize lark and get your head down and keep writing, because for all that I witter on about prize lists here, my preference rarely wins anyway so perhaps they aren't worth a fig when you are giving me the books you do.
Were Michael Mayne alive I would have been writing to him for sure because having quoted him last week and written about The Enduring Melody yesterday I'm about to repeat that and add more, because a man nearing the end of his life seems to have cut to the essence of what I would like my reading to give me...
'Life in all its messiness...characters allowed to make moral choices which may or may not be the author's and shaped by those choices for good or ill...Where everyone has a right to be understood : that's what impels the creative imagination of the writer and the empathetic response of the reader. The possibility, through a listening that is not judgemental, of getting inside another's skin, the enlarging of your own understanding of what it is to be someone else... an awakening of an awareness of other realities, other personalities, other people's lives.'
And he quotes Seamus Heaney who talks of...
'writers who can lift the reader's hand and put it down on the bare wire of the present': an image, a phrase, an idea, that strikes us as true, even universal. No matter when or where a writer lived his or her life he or she may tell you something you need to know about your own.'
And we'd all probably add a zillion more ideas of our own to that suggestion, but I hope we'd all agree that we find that very extra something in novels various on a regular basis. Michael Mayne, whilst feeling 'overwhelmed by the sheer weight of books demanding attention and the shortness of time ahead', freely admits...
'I have learned much more about human nature and, I believe, about the transcendent, about good and evil, sin and grace - from the novelist and the poet than from the theologian where only rare writers combine the insight, the humanity and the sheer readability that draw you back to them.'
Perhaps that's what matters to us ordinary readers me hearties, the insight, humanity and sheer readability that draws us back time and again... not the prizes.