By Jean Baird | April 22, 2013

Julian Barnes: The Booker “drives publishers mad with hope, booksellers mad with greed, judges mad with power, winners mad with pride, and losers (the unsuccessful short-listees plus every other novelist in the country) mad with envy and disappointment . . . novelists had better conclude that the only sensible attitude to the Booker is to treat it as posh bingo. It is El Gordo, the Fat One, the sudden jackpot that enriches some plodding Andalusian muleteer.”

One night before our Booker club Rex Weyler and I were discussing what happens to the reader when the book is being read other than for pleasure or personal interest, i.e., for school, for review, for a book club or because you are on a jury. What follows is Rex’s response and the email discussion that followed:

RE: how reading a book for this book club – or for review or prize judgment — changes the reading experience.

In my experience, possibly familiar to others, my consciousness changes if I’m reading a book for review, judging for a prize, or reading for this book club. I find myself meta-reading, measuring my experience, trying to gauge how well the author is doing, presumably against legitimate criteria. Of course, if the writer is good enough, if the narrative captures my attention, the effect is reduced. Nevertheless, I wonder: If I’m reading a book that I’m going to critique in public, how does this shift my experience of the book? I notice, for example, I’m less tolerant of annoying passages or awkward construction. In non-judgment mode, if a book possesses enough good qualities, I may overlook a few annoyances. If I’m critiquing the book, however, those annoyances stand out. Maybe that’s the whole point of critique, being less accepting and more alert to success or failure. But my question is more about the overall experience: The critiquing mind is not the private reading mind, and this changes the experience. A public reading experience is not a private reading experience. If I’ve read a book out of personal interest, and someone later asks me: “What did you think about that book?” I might offer a more authentic experience of the book because while reading it I was not meta-reading. While reading the last Booker book, Hotel World, I found myself wondering how I would respond to this book if I were not preparing to critique it. I also wondered how this changes the experience of people who critique books professionally, i.e. reviewers or literature professors. Are they always meta-reading, rarely or never just reading? I find this an alluring question. How does judging change the experience of the thing judged?

George Bowering: Well, I have thought about my experience, and I will say that I have often recalled with envy those days of my youth when I would read a book just to get down into it, whether it was a western by Max Brand or a novel by John Steinbeck. Talking about when a fellow is, say, 14. Now the closest I get to that is the experience of reading a crime novel by Elmore Leonard. Or a fake baseball biog. But it isn’t the same experience I had as a kid. Almost all books I read now I meta-read, to use Rex’s term. I do not forgive bits of bad writing. Well, maybe once in a while in special cases. And it is not just as a critic. I also think as a writer–how I would have done that a lot better, or how I absolutely delight in something Kroetsch has written. Sometimes I even think about what I can steal. Or I envy the writer for seeing it before I did. I often plow my way through very tough going because I know that the writer has workt through something difficult, by inventive means. I have not read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans yet but I have gritted my teeth and got through other texts that were unrewarding in the Elmore Leonard way. Rex, I am always meta-reading, The bloom is off the cherry, or whatever the saying is. Wordsworth’s “visionary gleam” is definitely gone. I will never again enjoy a book as I enjoyed The Martian Chronicles when I was a boy. But I read compulsively, and I do find stuff that is nice, and it is often useful too.

George Stanley:I’m always meta-reading too. Reading history, philosophy, etc., I get into arguments with the writer. If what I’m reading is really good, I read aloud – always a good poem but also sometimes fine passages of prose as well. (We all used to read aloud, until some late Roman discovered he only had to move the lips in his mind.)

Right now I’m reading Francis Steegmuller’s 1970 biography of Jean Cocteau, which has the effect of de-glamorizing the twenties – all those little squabbles between Diaghilev, Satie, Breton et al. – which is also the effect Woody Allen’s insipid little film Midnight in Paris has (but for worse reasons).

Colin Browne: I remember reading the Steegmuller, callowly, many years ago and it seemed to collapse all of a sudden near the end. If I’d have known how to meta-read then, I might be able to tell you why. Or maybe I collapsed near the end?

Is there a way to meta-be?

Rex Weyler: Always meta-reading.. I meta-read often, maybe always at some level, but I experience a significant distinction between (a) consciously reading with a public expectation to judge and (b) reading while primarily engaged with the images, characters, actions, scenes, mysteries, personal reflections, and so forth of the story itself.

And in both cases, I experience a fluctuation between the two states, so this may be a matter of degree, so yes, we are metareading always. But the degree matters.

A writer (artist) can succeed so well, or well-enough, that my meta-reading component drops to almost nil and my awareness remains in the story with the action or ideas. Perhaps in such cases the meta-reading is just concluded; the reader has decided to trust the author and so rarely thinks about it.

I fluctuate on a continuum between those two states of reading. The Kelman book engaged me enough in its tale – to the point that I virtually stopped metareading – that, when I did judge it, I gave it a good rating just for that ability.

Taking on an assignment to read critically for public judgment appears to me to change my experience of reading. Knowing that I’m going to publicly judge something seems to increase the portion of my attention on meta-reading vs. say, absorbed-reading. Such an expectation also appears to bring to my attention certain details of the craft that I may overlook if I’m more thoroughly engaged in the story. On the other hand, certain annoying writing habits, or confused logic, make it impossible for me to feel absorbed, so thus force me to into a more consciously critical mode.

George Stanley: Yes as Rex says there’s a kind of range, or gamut – or degree -of whether reading or meta-reading dominates – the main determinant being how good the book is. I was re-reading Crime and Punishment for one of my other (ahem!) book clubs – I wouldn’t have had time to meta-read – the book would have rushed on ahead of me!

George Bowering: I tend to agree with Rex, too, about the gradations. But I am also aware of another thing that happens. In addition to meta-reading and its always being there in some degree, there is also misreading, which is, I think, unavoidable. It too is a matter of degree.

Logic and experience.

I cannot conceive of any reading not being a misreading.

Kim Duff: But, then, can it be called a “misreading”? Doesn’t that imply there is a “proper” or “correct” reading?

George Bowering: I guess it does, but it is not attainable.

What I can say is that I never expect anything but misreadings of any fiction I publish.

Renee Rodin: Isn’t that what you’re saying about reading, that there’s an “exact” way to read something? If you expect your fiction to be misread, do you feel like that about your poetry and your non-fiction?

George Bowering: I was, with the remark about “exact,” making a comment that connected misreading to the unlikelihood of sharing exact thoughts. I thought so, anyway.

And no, I don’t believe that there can be an exact way of reading something. That’s why I learned years ago to forget about language as a way to transmit the world. And to understand writing as a way to put something into the world.

George Stanley:It seems there is no practical distinction to be made between reading and misreading. To speak of misreading is to describe reading.

George Bowering: That could be right. It’s a little like the way people describe Heaven. However you picture it has to be wrong because you, the picturer, are in a fallen state.

Colin Browne: Now you’ve got me thinking about mis-picturing.

George Bowering: Oh yes. And those movies you have made? We can never see the movie you made, only the movie we think we are seeing.

Marc Cote: It’s not, I think, a matter of reading or mis-reading or of reading or meta-reading; it’s this: the immature reader gives himself or herself over entirely to the author and the book, whereas the more experienced reader is wary. Age and experience cause this and it’s natural to everyone. No one reads at 35 the way they did at 15 or 25. Now also consider that when we read a second book by the same author, we have many built-in expectations which the author cannot help but deny us. These two facts push us out of the book: the awareness of specific expectations and the (general) disappointment when they are not met.

Reading for a purpose (jury duty, reviewing) takes the reader yet another step away from the text as experienced when reading for pleasure.

A few weeks after the above discussion George wrote the following poem, proving his point that he’s always listening for things he can steal.

The World, I Guess

If you don’t write it down, the poem will go away again,

back to wherever it came from, maybe a dead person

or Mars. Even if you’re doing something else, like trying

to have a bowel movement, as is often the case with me,

not meaning to be vulgar or comical, but

a planetoid is another possibility, if that’s the right word.


Think about all the poor mute Miltons who had something

else to do; they could have changed the world,

or at least the poetry world, or North America. But

even if you write it down, here’s the problem, you will be

mis-writing, because you are mis-reading. You have to accept that

if you want to spend a life at this job.

*     *     *

Jury: Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author; he writes for the Guardian as well as broadcasting for the BBC and has edited the Times and the London Evening Standard. Professor Roy Foster MA., Ph.D., D.Litt(Hons), Hons.Litt D., FRSL., FRHistS., FBA, Carroll Professor of Irish History at Hertford College has written widely on Irish history, society and politics in the modern period, as well as on Victorian high politics and culture; and the authorised biography of Yeats. Mariella Frostrup is a Norwegian-born journalist and television presenter, well known on British TV and radio, mainly for arts programmes. Caroline Gascoigne at the time was the Sunday Time literary editor, and is now with Random House. Rose Tremain, writer.

Matthew Kneale—English Passengers VPL

A group of Manxmen (men from the Isle of Man) in the 1850s get caught trying to smuggle goods into England. To avoid surrendering their ship to pay the penalties, they hire out the ship to a motley group of three Englishmen who wish to go to Van Diemens Land in search of the Garden of Eden. The other timeframe begins in 1820 when Jack Harp, taking a break from sealing, steals an aboriginal woman and keeps her captive to satisfy his sexual appetites. The novel is complex, taking on big themes particularly the colonial destruction of Tasmanian aboriginals and the smug belief in religion and ethnic superiority.

The story has over 20 narrators including the Manx Captain, the 3 English passengers—a doctor, a pastor and Timothy Renshaw, a reluctant young botanist volunteered by his parents who hope the voyage will bring him to his senses—convicts who have been transported, aboriginal Tasmanians, half-breeds, governors, their wives and visiting officials from England. Occasionally these narrators—presented in various ways including diary entries and letters—seem to exist only to provide background information, but that is rare. For the most part each distinct voice adds to and is intrinsic to the tapestry of the novel. It could easily have been a mish mash, with so many narrators and two timelines that eventually merge in the end. Just keeping track of the names could have presented a challenge to the reader but that is not the case. Some of the voices are so distinct you could open the book in the middle of a section and know from the language which character is narrating. Not all, but most, and that’s something.

I was bothered a bit by the voice of Peevay, an aboriginal. Curious, because I wasn’t bothered that Kneale created the voice of a Manx captain or a colonist’s wife. But how can a C20th Oxford man know how a Tasmanian aboriginal who has never before encountered white men think or feel?

Trezza Azzopardi—The Hiding Place VPL

Category: modern gothic dysfunctional family saga.

Narrated by the youngest of a large family of six girls, fathered by a Maltese immigrant, the novel shows the generational impact of physical and emotional abuse, superstitions, abandonment and community collusion. As so often with a naïve narrator, the early part of the story unfolds with little judgment. Dolores was burned as an infant and lost her hand. That disfigurement becomes the symbol of the family’s fears—of the father, his gambling and the resulting financial and emotional ruin that in the end also destroys the family and sends the children to various foster homes. The dad abandons the family and the mother goes mad. The novel explores the underbelly of 1960s Wales.

Michael Collins—The Keepers of Truth VPL

Collins was born in Ireland but has lived most of his life in the USA and is now an American citizen. He is still usually referred to as an Irish novelist.

The narrator, Bill, writes for the local paper in a small middle-American industrial town that is collapsing due to falling economy, lost jobs, increasing alcoholism and the other associated evils of failing consumer society—cheap offshore labour, a generation living “off the backs of women and children, on the cheap labour of places without names.” Bill’s family made its fortune in ice, then in refrigeration. He went to journalism school, not with much flair or success. That lack of vigour is true of the rest of his life. Bill is an anti-hero. But one of the fine accomplishments of the novel is the success of Bill’s narrative voice.

In order to retain his income from the estate Bill must reside in the family mansion, as dictated by his controlling grandfather’s will. Near the estate is a zoo, and the image of cages is an ongoing theme, since like Bill, this whole town, and by extension the country, is trapped.

Another theme is the death of newspapers and journalism and the take over of TV, a change that Bill and his newspaper cohorts see as all image and no content (the female Fox-like newshow journalist is a wonderful side character and also illustrates how journalists themselves are becoming part of the story, like Oprah).

In some ways it is a crime novel, or a who-done-it. One of the local rednecks has been reported missing by his son and Bill and the newspaper try to raise interest and subscriptions by following the case.

The hapless Bill is forever spouting social commentary:

I was going on about Rocky specifically this day. I said, ‘Sam, don’t you think Rocky is all social commentary, an ironic representation of the megalomaniac sense of personal growth that has been shoved up our asses in recent times? Take the gigantism of his physical body. What is it but a new hemisphere into which he has grown, because there is no more land to discover, no new colony to conquer? He had colonized himself, Ed, down there in the meatpacking plants of unions, he’s sublimated frustration into the ring. I’ll tell you, lets look at Rocky in a few years, let’s see what he turns into. I can see him morph into some outside creature, alienated, someone who has lost faith in the American way, shooting up his home town!’

I crawled away home from the tongue-lashing Sam gave me. I’ve never seen a man so irked by genius in all my life.

The novel is complex and teems with astute observations about the decline of the American Dream. Bill watches as his town, in the bread basket of the USA, succumbs to fast food and obesity and the “jingoism of our imprisonment.”

A powerful novel.

Brian O’Doherty—The Deposition of Father McGreevy VPL

William Maginn overhears an interesting story in a pub that refers to a deposition given to a policeman by a priest. He finds the document, reads and annotates it. This explanation is the first 10 pages of the novel. The second section is the 338-page deposition.

The priest describes the mountain village that is his small flock. A harsh winter cuts off the community from the larger town at the foot of the mountain. All six wives die of an unknown disease. Unable to go down, the community lives with the coffins until the ground can be worked. The much shrunken village includes, as well as the priest, the widowed men, their children and Old Biddy who keeps house for the Father and is the only surviving woman.

The Father’s deposition describes what happens to the villagers. Without the nurturing of their mothers, the children need guidance and the Father tries to teach them lessons. Eventually the children go down to school, and don’t return, except for the two children of Muiris. The oldest son, Tadgh Og, once handsome and quick, had been hit by a stone and suffered brain damage. The youngest at six is too small for school. As Tadgh turns into an active teenager he relies on sheep to slacken his sexual appetite.

The townspeople are suspicious of the villagers, and see them as unusual. When one of the mountain men marries a town girl and leaves to reside with her, his gossip about Tadgh creates a crisis.

O’Doherty is lamenting the loss of the Irish language and the old ways. The isolation of Father McGreevy, a true innocent, from the real world parallels the isolation of the mountain community. The backdrop of WWII further underlines Ireland’s separation from the rest of the world. Other themes, as you would predict, include tradition versus progress, hatred of Anglos, dysfunctional communities and families, and the nature of harm.

The first third of the novel was engaging, then the long-winded style becomes tedious. Yes, I realize O’Doherty is using this style to pay homage to an Irish storytelling tradition but it doesn’t translate well. After the lengthy deposition, William Maginn searches out Old Biddy and Muiris, now 20 years after the collapse of the mountain village, and those encounters are two small sections that seem tacked on. The annotations of the deposition—footnotes explaining Irish words, details about people mentioned, etc.—are mostly intrusive. At times the characters are stage Irish and the dialogue is stilted. In short, it starts well then waffles between realism and fable.

I wonder if Professor Foster was championing this one.

Kazuo Ishiguor—When We Were Orphans VPL

The novel uses similar techniques and touches the same themes we have seen in the earlier Booker novels by Ishiguro:

  • First person narrator, rather dim to the real world and his own personality
  • Not a contemporary location but an historical past, in this instance 1930s England and 1920s and 30s Shanghai
  • A narrator who avoids the emotions of the past, leaving him disconnected from the present
  • Societal obligations, and how those can interfere with the individual’s needs

The novel is written in the manner of a 1920s/30s mystery/detective novel, with that sort of tension of unsolved events. Christopher Banks, now a private detective encounters Sarah Hemmings at a social gathering in 1923. The encounter triggers a series of reminiscences. Christopher was born in Shanghai and lived in the International Settlement. His father worked for a company involved in the opium trade. His mother was an activist trying to stop the opium trade, arguing for the dire consequences it was having for the native people. Christopher’s father disappears. Not long after, so does his mother. Christopher’s Uncle Philip (not a relative) is also an important figure in his young life. Christopher is sent to London on the money from a rich aunt’s inheritance and when he grows up and finishes university, sets out to be a detective, his childhood dream.

The novel has been compared to The Good Soldier, and that seems apt. Christopher excels in self-deception and the reader must look to other characters for better information. For example, a school chum remembers that Christopher was odd. Christopher is offended, being certain that he always fit in well. That self-deception costs Christopher his one shot at love and also the opportunity to parent an adopted child, also an orphan.

As the threat of war looms Christopher is convinced he must return to Shanghai and solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, and that the resolution will stop the war. In the end he does discover what really happened and it requires Christopher, and the reader, to reexamine everything that has gone before in a new light.

In The Remains of the Day I thought the voice of the butler narrator was exact. Christopher’s voice never fully persuaded me, in part because it seems to be the same voice, cadence and tone as the butler. But like the butler, Christopher’s life work and passion has all been illusion, not for the “greater good.” They search for order in a chaotic and changing world, without success.

The structure of the novel is fascinating and complicated. London, 24th July 1930. London, 15th May 1931. And so on. In each section Christopher looks back to things in the distant and immediate past while recounting what has happened in recent days. But there is no looking ahead. He is writing the sections as they occur, not years later looking back.

Margaret Atwood—The Blind Assassin GB library WINNER

Category: Ontario Gothic

The novel begins, “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” The story is told to us by Laura’s older sister, Iris, now 82. Laura was married off by her financially strapped father to a Toronto businessman with the hopes of injecting some cash and security into the crumbling button factory on which the family’s future had been built. Interspersed with Iris’s narrative about her youth and growing up is the novel The Blind Assassin that was published posthumously as the work of Laura. The novel was racy for its time—about a married woman having an affair with left-wing man on the run—and created a cult following for its author. Within the novel within the novel are the stories the ne’er do well man makes up to amuse the woman after their lovemaking sessions. As this brief plot summary suggests, this is a big and ambitious novel examining the themes of love, loss, jealousy, and betrayal as well as the changing societal roles in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized country.

Iris and Laura grow up in the fictional small Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga. I grew up in a small Ontario town, then lived for many years in another. Like Port Ticonderoga, both had economies dependant on factories, and suffered when the factories closed or downsized. I think Atwood’s descriptions of the environment and complicated relationships in these small communities is exact, right down to the “annoying white canvas hats.” Port Ticonderoga is trying to reclaim heritage factories by turning them into boutiques to attract tourism, complete with blown up heritage photos from the town archives.

Two things bothered me about the novel. The bloodless men (Atwood’s term, not mine). Laura’s novel may have been risqué between the wars but why is the cult alive in the post-feminist Much Music video world of the late C20th?

The novel is ambitious, and a good read. This reviewer captures my quibbles.



2000 Rose Tremain from The Guardian

My second stint as a Booker prize judge contrasted with the first in one important respect: we had an extremely effective and powerful chair in Simon Jenkins. In 1988, the lovable Michael Foot had been hampered, as chair, by diary overspill. But Simon’s influence on the 2000 jury was impressive. Meetings were held at his rooms in Albany, rather than at Martyn Goff’s preferred venue of the Savile Club. Despite the constant lamentations of his fax machine, Simon’s attention never strayed from the tasks in hand, the first of which was to kick out the dross. Roy Foster, Caroline Gascoigne, Mariella Frostrup and I were a vocal team and we each had our favourites. Mariella was able to squeeze Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers on to the list, and Caroline’s advocacy for Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans was duly recognised. Roy Foster and I lost our battle for Anne Enright’s What Are You Like?, but my call-in title, Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place, scraped home.

What is really interesting is that nobody thought Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was her best book. Where Simon’s mental agility paid off was in persuading us all (except Mariella) that Atwood deserved the prize anyway – for all the times she’d nearly won it and had been pipped at the post by a lesser writer.

What is “diary overspill”?




More from Jean Baird:

  • 2011

    Jean Baird reviews her favourite Booker novels and reports on the 2011 prize. Read more… 

  • 2010

    Jean Baird offers some advice about writing a prize-winning book and reports on the 2010 Booker Prize. Read more… 

  • 2008

    Jean Baird offers some advice to literary prize administrators and reports on the 2008 Booker Prize. Read more…