By Jean Baird | May 6, 2013

In my 1979 report I included Michael Boughn’s wonderful and irreverent acceptance speech for the Friggin Prize. In 2011, Michael found himself in a similar position to Julian Barnes with the 2011 Booker—short-listed for a prize he had publicly ridiculed. What follows is Boughn’s assessment of and reflections on his predicament.

Racing for the prize

I recently was “short listed,” as they say, for a big literary prize. How big is big, you well may ask. Big enough to get my name on lists in a bunch of newspapers across Canada, but “big,” as we all know, is a relative term inflected by a lot of different factors. For instance, is the prize for poetry or fiction? In the current world of literary value, the biggest prize for poetry, even if the pot is richer, will never be as big as any prize for fiction. Smaller fiction prizes provide endless material for cultural pundits to speculate on in the arts sections of newspapers across the country. Fiction prizes even have their own season – headlines announce “the race is on,” and photographs of serious looking writers sport captions indicating who has pulled ahead. Like horses. Or dogs chasing fake rabbits. They are interviewed and profiled endlessly. Poetry prizes and their nominees, meanwhile, languish far down the page in long, unadorned lists somewhere under the nominees for children’s lit.

The big prize I was nominated for was a poetry prize, so even though it was referred to as “prestigious” in a congratulatory form letter from the large cultural institution proffering said prize, things soon sank into a slough of silence as the fiction contest heated up and speculation intensified as to who would win the most races this racing season. Still, even though it immediately was swallowed by poetry’s cone of silence, it did cause me some discomfort because it was a big prize for poetry and a couple of years before I had made a public statement making fun of such prizes.

I made that statement when my previous book of poetry, a swell if obscure little book called 22 Skidoo, received a swell, if obscure, little prize called The Friggin (yes, that is an anagram). The Friggin Prize was not a real prize, although I did get a shiny sticker for the front cover of my book (that’s another story) and fifty bucks for beer, but it wasn’t real enough, in the scheme of prize quiddities, to deserve even a long list, much less a short one. In fact, the somewhat sassy slogan of the Friggin Prize was, “No long list; no short list; no guest list; just the Friggin Prize.” It was obviously an insouciant little prize with something of a chip on its shoulder, and it called for an acceptance speech equally insouciant and chippy, which I happily composed.

I was fortunate because it was a somewhat scandalous time for poetry prizes and I was handed some juicy material for the speech which, in the true spirit of the Friggin, made fun of all those big prizes and the culture of commercialized writing they seem to reflect. In England, for instance, a contestant for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, admittedly not a prize in the literal sense, but certainly a plum with lots of prize-like trappings, was busted for slandering another distinguished poet competitor in order to better her chances for the job, an act more appropriate for a boardroom brouhaha than a poetry contest. In Canada, meanwhile, the same big prize I got nominated for was awarded to a young man whose writing teacher/mentor was on the jury that made the award. She had also written the introduction for the same book. When it was suggested that this might be construed as a form of blatant nepotism, that the relations were a little too close for justifiable comfort, she turned on her accusers, damning them with the label “dada poets,” thereby dismissing them as unworthy of serious attention.

I pointed to these and other prizes in the Friggin Acceptance Speech as examples of a writing culture that has lost sight of poetry’s true mission because it has become focused on prizes and races, so much so that some people have begun to write with the prize in mind. I did have a good time poking fun at them, but beneath that fun lurked some potentially serious issues about the relation of commerce to art, issues that have been around for a while now – at least since Michaelangelo bitched about what a drag it was to have to adjust his work to the philistine expectations of his patrons – which we have largely lost sight of since everything, including poetry, has become professionalized with its own university programs, career courses, and commercial measures of success.

Of course, I was soon hoisted on my own petard once I got short listed. Some blogger who no doubt Googled the nominees as soon as the lists were published, joyfully discovered my Friggin Speech and reprinted two paragraphs under the heading “Michael Boughn’s Gov-Gen Acceptance Speech?”

And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence – that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill . . .. We, however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you?

Whether that would have been my Governor General’s acceptance speech is now a moot point. I have done more outrageous things at various points in my life, but in this case I probably wouldn’t have, if only out of courtesy to the Governor General, who, after all, is the representative of the Queen to whom I swore allegiance in 2001. It took me thirty-five years to come to an understanding that would permit me to take that oath in good faith, and being a poet, that is someone who takes – or at least ought to take – words seriously, I am not about to violate it now.

No doubt the blogger who posted the excerpt would have seen this as “selling out,” a thought that crossed my own mind, however briefly, causing the discomfort I mentioned previously. The phrase, “selling out,” describes a relation between art and commerce. It is implicitly premised on the idea of a certain potential authenticity to art, or at least a value that, if not transcendent, or grounded in some realm beyond the quotidian, is at least outside the market, including the prize market. Exactly what that value is remains difficult to put your finger on. It seemed the blog positioned the quote in such a way as to accuse me of inconsistency or hypocrisy, of abandoning my personal values (there’s that word again) in order to reap the recognition and money – especially the money – that goes along with a big prize. It is easy to be insouciant and sassy when there is nothing at stake, but will you stick by your words when there is dough on the table? What about your personal values then?

Value is a troubled concept these days. It used to be seen as grounded in the transcendental, existing beyond the commensurable and the comparable. The whole transcendental thing, with its claim to a realm of absolute value somewhere beyond the contingencies of this sloppy world, however, went out the window a while ago. The industrial revolution was one of the main culprits in its demise, as well as the institution of science that gave rise to it. In Henry James’s 1878 novel, The American, the first word of dialog, the question, “Combien?”, is uttered in that maximum security lock up of transcendental value, the Louvre. Christopher Newman, the very rich and successful American businessman of the title, utters it while trying to hustle a good looking young copyist, offering to buy her bad copy of Murillo’s “Madonna.” Not that Christopher Newman, archetypal American art philistine, would know good from bad, even if he was interested in art rather than attractive French women. Still, the point was made – in 1878 – in a world of abundant copies, mass production and mass consumption, art doesn’t stand a proverbial snowball’s chance in the nether regions of withstanding the avalanche of commodification that has redefined value. It’s all about the money, dude.

Within that context, though, the idea lingers in some circles that art – at least certain kinds of art – ought to be a bastion of integrity against the prostitution of mind and spirit that capitalism offers up as culture. That was the implicit idea at the core of the Friggin speech. Selling out has to do with tailoring your work to a market, consciously or unconsciously adjusting your creative decisions, in order to maximize the work’s attractiveness to potential buyers (or prize awarders). But as much as artists need to create they also have to eat, and if you are not independently wealthy or supported by someone who has a regular job, presumably selling your art helps in that regard. If you can sell it, at least you can go on making it rather than starving to death in a grubby basement apartment while the world waits with bated breath to find out who is going to win the latest literary contest.

But is art – all of it – just another commodity in the market to be produced and consumed, a race for the prize, or does it still potentially lay claim to some other realm or mode of existence? While it is fashionable in some intellectual circles to go on about the end of authenticity and originality, the death of the author, and so on, real writing does go on and I don’t mean by that the kind of writing associated with the phrase “Writers and Poets.” “Writers and Poets” is a nonsense phrase invented by the hordes of graduates from arts management programs to explain what they are supposed to manage. When I raised this issue in a public forum, asking what poets are presumed to do if not write, there was general agreement that the word “poets” in this context means people who do not earn money from writing, whereas writers, at least potentially, do, a crucial distinction for arts managers. Arguing that that was not a bad thing, a terrific poet (Peter Culley) who writes books that those who award prizes are apparently severely allergic to, responded by arguing that in fact “poetry is being ruined by people who are trying to turn it into a ‘real’ & non-fucked (commercial) activity instead of the art form reserved for deadbeats & losers who don’t want to be bothered by worrying about asshole audiences . . ..”

The writing that is at stake in Culley’s thinking is of another order than the one implied in “Writers and Poets,” one that has recourse to a sense of . . . what are you going to call it if not authenticity or integrity? Well, say attention, attention not merely to some thought of the world arranged in an aesthetically pleasing formation that can win a prize. Culley’s thinking has this writing taking place at a point where every word resonates with a field of meaning that opens up to the extraordinary and uncontainable complexity of the sounding of the world – that kind of attention, the kind where every choice, which is to say every word, opens the sentence, the line, to what is always opening beyond it. There is an adventure in that that most prize awarding panels find, well, stupefying, because mostly they have been trained to read (and write) a conventional (prize winning) verse that is taught in the professional writing programs that the judges have been trained in.

It is hard for me to argue with Culley’s point, given my own writing, notwithstanding the – I think “fluke” would work adequately here – of the big prize nomination. Not that Cosmographia – a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic didn’t deserve it, but the flukiness of the process as a whole is legendary among those who have participated on various art booty panels – not that it could be otherwise, though it does seem usually dominated by a certain narrow range of sensibility. Someone long ago pinched a phrase from Levi-Strauss to describe the difference between the academic verse of 50 years ago and what was then called “the new American poetry,” after an anthology of that name that came to typify an adventurous kind of writing, a phrase still in circulation, saying the one was “cooked,” the other “raw.” Sounds nice, but like so many nice sounding things, it doesn’t really work if you actually think about it. The poetry that is supposedly raw is just as closely and carefully composed as anything deemed cooked. “Open” and “closed” capture more of the thrust of the argument (as Charles Olson famously located it in an open field), both in terms of the relation to form, as well as the range of address, although no doubt there would be just as much argument about that as about any other dichotomy. Perhaps not even “open,” but “opening,” to keep it transitive, in process. It is a fidelity to the opening that I would locate in relation to this question of a writing with no value (or absolute value which is the same thing) which takes place outside the closure of any economy or system – or, for that matter, any theory, an opening between the writer and the language of the world she or he lives in that constantly moves toward the unanticipated, the incommensurable. In either case, the result is something called creation.

Not that there is anything special about that. “It is bread and butter,” Jack Spicer wrote, “pepper and salt. The death / that young men hope for.” Emerson had it as familiar: “. . . I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” he wrote. The commonness of that opening – “This ocean, humiliating in its disguises,” or what Emerson calls the “plastic and fluid” world – leaves us with a lot of options when it comes to writing – or making anything for that matter, and while commerce can be – and often is – the enemy of that process, it is not always the case. One of the great moments in American cultural history occurred in the 20s and 30s when burgeoning American pop culture gave rise to the idea that “music could have substance as well as mass-marketability,” as Will Friedwald put it in his biography of Frank Sinatra, one of the great benefiters of that. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Kurt Weil, Harold Arlen, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers were not ruined by commerce – commerce made them possible, and I doubt even Peter Culley would begrudge that.

For some, though, this is so-called “low art,” and thus automatically of negligible value in the hierarchy of values. Its saleability is seen as grounded in offering comfort and reassurance to audiences, the ready confirmation of their expectations, rather than challenging them the way something called “high art” is supposed to do. Its claim to “creativity” is seen as of another order. Harlequin romances and TV sitcoms command the depths of low art. High art, on the other hand, occupies art galleries, museums, myriad corporate boardrooms, and, of course, the stages where the race prizes are distributed at the end of the literary racing season. This high/low distinction has haunted thinking about art since the 18th century and its spatial language is a reminder of the lingering social hierarchies that defined the difference. These days the difference is often confused with questions of genre, where certain genres are assumed to appeal to the mass market while others don’t. Television is low art, opera is high. Literary fiction is high, crime fiction is low. Each has its own contests. Poetry, because of its pre-MFA/creative writing program history as a serious art, clings to some vestigial value, even though it has become so marginalized that its actual value is paradoxically low.

Of course the distinction is overly simplistic. Our world is a world of lascivious democracies of form and in practice has lost all sense of such distinctions, as if Emerson’s words were prophetic in ways even he couldn’t imagine. Television can be a venue of astonishing complexity, as well as banality, where shows such as “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood” or “Treme” easily qualify as – well, whatever they are, they are not low art, notwithstanding their relative commercial success. The world of writing is equally mongrelized and confused where much so-called literary fiction is pre-packaged for Oprah with set pieces about incest and child abuse that are notable only for their predictability and sensationalism, while some so-called genre fiction dabbles with complexities of thought that boggle the mind.

There is a marvellous little set piece near the beginning of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, La Brava, in which the two main characters, Tony La Brava, a secret service agent turned art photographer, and his new lover, the aging film star Jean Shaw, discuss responses to a recent show of La Brava’s work. After going through a list of art-speak comments – “His work is a compendium of humanity’s defeat at the hands of venture capital;” “He sees himself as dispossessed, unassimilated” – La Brava responds with classic naïve anti-art speak – “I thought I was just taking pictures.” And then he goes on to relate a further overheard conversation in which a man said, “I think he takes pictures to make a buck, and anything else is fringe.”

Of course, making a buck had to come up. Even in pulp fiction, the dirty bottom rung on the ladder of literary excellence, any discussion of art can lead into the quagmire of its relation to money and commerce – maybe especially because it is pulp fiction, whose very existence is presumably premised on commercialism – work done for money, for a market. La Brava’s response would be shocking in high art circles: “I would’ve kissed the guy,” he says, “but it might have ruined his perspective.” Even more so than the proposition that there is such a thing as “just taking pictures,” La Brava’s open embrace of the idea that it is not only OK to make a buck with your art, but actually a good thing, pushes the conversation into a zone that resonates beyond the apparent commonness of the situation, given that the book we are holding as we read is precisely analogous, written no doubt to make a buck.

Is La Brava just an art whore – and naïve to boot? Is Elmore Leonard just using a character to justify his own selling out? A turn in the conversation complicates things when La Brava introduces Walker Evans into the equation. Evans, of course, was the ultimate American art photographer, connected at least briefly to Steiglitz and the New York art crowd of the 20s and 30s. He rejected the artiness of that scene to do “documentary” work for the Farm Security Administration, work that came to visually define America in the Great Depression and reorient the art of photography. He was Emersonian in his commitment to the common and the low, virtually paraphrasing Emerson in his 1969 book on photography: “After a certain point in his formative years, [the photographer] learns to do his looking outside of art museums: his place is in the street, the village, and the ordinary countryside. For his eye, the raw feast: much-used shops, bedrooms, and yards, far from the halls of full-dress architecture, landscaped splendour, or the more obviously scenic nature.”

La Brava quotes Evans to the effect that his photographs, like Evans’s, are “images whose meanings exceed the local circumstances that provide their occasion.” What exactly is this excessive meaning, and what is it doing in a piece of low-rent genre fiction about murder, duplicity, and mayhem? For La Brava, it seems to define the very possibility of art – certainly his art – that the most common image, or the image of the common, can be informed by a power, a force, utterly unique and independent of the photographer. Evans was moving counter to the elaborate romanticism of Steichen and the artiness of Stieglitz, a genuine low art. What he achieved is often referred to as “realism,” but I think it is closer to what Charles Olson – roughly Evans’s contemporary – called objectism.

Objectism was the name Olson gave his push in poetry away from the lyrical (which he saw as an interference, much as Evans saw Stieglitz’s carefully crafted art shots) and toward his sense of the unique and specific revelatory force any object projects in the world – and by object he meant persons as much as stones or Mayan artifacts – the utter specificity of each element of the world, each object. Olson, in a letter to Robert Creeley, cites this as “to force the particular to yield dimension.” That yielded dimension seems to me analogous to Evans’s “meaning which exceeds its occasion.” Olson elsewhere writes of it as a secularism that loses nothing of the divine.

Not unlike Evans, La Brava’s art is focused on photographing what are called common people – the inhabitants of South Beach in Miami at a time when its demographics had been seriously altered by the Mariel boat lift and other de-gentrifying forces. Also not unlike Evans, he seeks to record a moment of the lives of the people he shoots that bears the full weight of those lives, their world, the depths they circulate through and that circulate through them, usually without recognition. Evans described it as “the movements and changes or, again, the conflicts which in passing become the body of the history of civilizations.”

But then, that is what Elmore Leonard is doing as well with his low art. La Brava is a text that engages common people in a narrative that locates them in a world of intense, unresolvable – sometimes unbearable – moral ambiguities and conventional transgressions – that is, transgressions of conventional expectations in both content and form. Murders are committed and no one is brought to justice – on the contrary, the killer thrives. Friends attempt to steal from vulnerable friends, and rather than being condemned or punished, end up getting married to them. The text then turns into a kind of mise-en-abyme of images whose meaning exceeds their local occasion. This dizzying sense of multiple reflections is reinforced by the fact that the text is riddled with discourses about representation (photography, film, painting) and the ways in which the line between “reality” and “representation” have become utterly confused, a world in which life imitates art but art lies leaving everyone treading very deep water, indeed. And all of it is packaged in something you might call just a book, specifically a commercially viable generic crime novel. Art for money, but outside any hierarchy of value that could set recognized, established measures of high, low, commercial, non-commercial, or what have you.

Walker Evans fought against what he saw as commercialism his entire artistic life, even as he sought to sell his art, to make a living from it, and complained about the difficulty of that. This is not the same “commercialism” that bothers Peter Culley – not exactly, anyway – though it is not the same as the commercialism La Brava embraces either. Culley, I think, is concerned that the bounds of the work might be set by some other demand or attention than what is specific to the work at any moment – the thought of some reward, whether money or a prize. La Brava embraces the idea that if you do your work, you should be rewarded for it, an idea Walker Evans shared.

So while part of me cringed at the announcement of my nomination, anticipating the blogger’s accusation of hypocrisy and commercial sell-out, wondering briefly if I should withdraw my name, another part of me virtually swooned with excitement at the thought of this reward for my work. There is no question it feels good to be named among five books out of hundreds as deserving of special attention, even if it was a fluke and the notice quickly disappeared in the Poetry Cone of Silence. It may not be as financially rewarding as La Brava’s photographs, but after labouring at it for almost 50 years and making some interesting things out of words from time to time, it is nice to be recognized, however fleetingly. There is no profound, unprincipled inconsistency between that pleasure and the sentiments of the Friggin speech, and even if there was, who cares? As Emerson famously said in his defence of self-reliance and the necessity to be true to the force of the moment, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I doubt that it will affect the way I write – I certainly hope, in any case, that I am not so easily bought off that one failed run in the prize race will now turn me into an art whore, spending my last years trying to figure out how to write a book that will win the big prize. Not that it would work, anyway. Joel Oppenheimer, a quintessential New York poet, once told me how he tried unsuccessfully for years to get a poem published in The New Yorker. Finally he sat down and systematically studied the poems the magazine did publish and determined they all had trees in them. So he wrote a poem with trees in it and sent it to them. Of course, they rejected it, because, after all, Joel was Joel, and the New Yorker is – well, the New Yorker.

But for all the pleasure of being noticed and put into those lists – however unadorned they were – there were also drawbacks. The worst part was the inevitable competition that situation breeds, no matter how hard one tries to resist it. That is not exactly selling out, but in some ways it is worse. I do believe that poets are not in competition with each other. The very nature of the process – the fidelity to opening, to the emergence of form, the language of that – is destroyed by competition that sets your work against the work of someone else, as if there was some actual measure whereby one could be judged against the other, as if poetry existed in a market. Even our Oedipal relations are not quite competitive – we embrace those who came before us, honour them and incorporate them into our work with loving attention.

Or maybe not. Peter Quartermain calls me on that, reminding me that competition among artists is inevitable in some sense and not necessarily a bad thing: “Bunting once told me,” he writes, “that he thought Shelley’s last gasp as he drowned must have been ‘destroy all my work’ because it doesn’t (couldn’t) match the work he loved: that ambition is in a different arena than the marketplace or the sports stadium has to offer, and of course one competes. But not to put down the other, but to say ‘hey look at this!’ the pleasure one takes in one’s own work.” It is hard to argue with that, but I don`t think this is the nature of the competition involved in a culture of poetry contests, of which the Big Prize is the ultimate expression. I was recently sent a flyer titled “A Year of Deadlines / A compendium of poetry competitions in Canada.” Under headings including National, Provincial, Regional, and Cities, no less than 75 different poetry contests are listed on what looks like a page from the want ads in the daily newspaper. While Bunting may have been right about Shelley’s last thoughts, it is rather difficult to imagine Shelley pondering whether to submit “Prometheus Unbound” for the Malahat Review long poem prize or the Arc poem of the year award. He was far too busy creating art.

At the risk of seeming arrogant, it seems doubtful to me that most of the poets entering the 75 contests even know what “Prometheus Unbound” is, much less have read it. That is not a requirement for an MFA, and most creative writing classes are too busy searching for a catchy simile to worry about what the great artists of the tradition have done. This is not a question of high or low culture or commercial or non-commercial art. It has to do with Culley’s sense of the transformation of poetry by the great cultural machine made up of creative writing classes, MFA programs, university degrees in poetry writing, and the infinitely expanding world of professionalized contests, in which the like-minded reward each other.

I suppose what’s at stake here are differing senses of competition, probably related to the etymological divergence in the root of the word. To petition together – to try to mutually attain, to seek together – still lurks in competition’s possibilities and in Quartermain’s thought of a different arena. But in our world of commercial determinations, the rivalry invariably ends up in the marketplace. That competition belongs to another world – business or sports, institutional conflict – and to put poets in a situation that encourages that is an arts management notion designed for marketing purposes. It degrades the writers, turning them into tokens in a race that doesn’t even really exist, since the arts managers know who won from the git go.

It is also a drag being turned into a loser when previously you were happily doing your work with no thought of winning or losing or beating or being beaten. As someone who had previously been through the race for the big prize mentioned to me, it is a process designed for the production of losers. If we want to award laurels for great poetry (and we should), it would be far better for the writers (if anyone actually cares about the writers) to simply announce the winners and the runners up – or maybe 5 winners – and then organize celebrations of their accomplishments. There are no losers in that scenario, only winners – but there are, unfortunately, reduced marketing opportunities. Which brings us to the point. The Literary Racing Season, it turns out, is really not so much about Literary Excellence as it is a marketing ploy, a way to sell books (not necessarily a bad thing, although easily accomplished in other ways) and guarantee jobs for arts managers (well, we could probably do without that). But in so far as the culture it generates gives rise to a sense of the measure of value that is keyed to prizes, it is utterly destructive and we need to rethink how to do it.


Jury: John Carey British literary critic, and emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. Carey was also the chair for the Booker in 1982 and chaired the judging panel for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005. He is chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times. AC Grayling philosopher and author of books about philosophy. Francine Stock broadcaster and novelist. Rebecca Stephens journalist and broadcaster. D J Taylor critic, novelist and biographer.

Zoë Heller—Notes on a Scandal VPL

Another novel discussed by Jean’s Booker Book Club

Barbara, in her 60s, is a spinster schoolteacher complete with cat who is writing the story of her fellow teacher, Sheba. Sheba, in her early 40s, comes from privilege. Married at 20 to an older man, now that her two children are settled into schools—16 year old Polly and 10 year old Ben, who has Down Syndrome—Sheba has taken a job as the art teacher at Barbara’s school in a poor area of London. Sheba has trouble handling the unruly teens in her class, except for one young man, Steven Connolly. Connolly, 15, has artistic talent and seeks out Sheba for extra help. They start an affair. Barbara tells the story in hindsight, after Sheba has been caught.

The Booker Club members all agreed that the novel was an easy read. Most of us read it quickly and we speculated about what kept us reading. George suggested it was titillating. Pauline was less enthused—“another loser novel” she said, with emotionally crippled characters without enough depth to be tragic. Deb also said she often had to put the book aside because the main character, Barbara is so wicked and manipulative that it became irritating.

Charlie found parts of it pretty funny, as did I. He liked the asymmetrical relationships, and how the power kept shifting. Judith, too, pointed to the sharp observations. Details that seem so exact, particularly classroom details and attitudes and expectations about class. Kim noted Sheba’s details about the Connolly home, and her surprise that everything is so clean and tidy. Sheba can afford to be bohemian and rumpled.

Barbara is a bitter and critical snob. Painfully lonely, she has a history of rejection. She has insight about the behaviour of others—all the male teachers gravitate to the beautiful Sheba—but little about her own. For sure she understands the depth of her isolation and loneliness and some of the most powerful sections of the novel are those descriptions, like organizing a whole weekend around a trip to the launderette. But she doesn’t recognize her obsessiveness and always blames others when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. For the reader being inside Barbara’s brain does have disturbing moments. She has tremendous vigor, but is over-drawn.

Sheba, too, is lonely and isolated. Although she appears to “have it all”—financial stability, a beautiful home and a loving husband—she feels unfulfilled. And as an aging beauty who has always got by on her looks, she yearns for something more.

There was no discussion at this meeting of the book club about sympathy for the characters. Well, maybe the cat, but otherwise these characters are an odious lot. Sheba is vapid—at the end of the novel, after Barbara’s cat has died we find her curled up on Barbara’s bed. Sheba becomes Barbara’s new pet and object of obsession. It’s bleak. And in the end rather formulaic—like genre fiction. Renee said it’s as if Eleanor Rigby meets The Collector.

So, a novel that is well-written but essentially uses genre methods and popular culture. It’s a quick and easy read because comprehension is mindless. There’s no need to go back and read a passage again. Yes, it’s often cynical and funny, clever and flip but there is nothing challenging or new. George Stanley argued that the novel is pornography of ordinary life, and that all genre writing is in some sense pornography and the abnegation of responsibility. George Stanley compared it to a Ruth Rendell book. GB compared it to a nurse novel.

Out of 10 where 10 is a great work of fiction, the novel scored between 3 (GB) and 8.5 with this group.

The group discussion already covers the easy readability. This was Heller’s second novel. The publisher did not submit the novel; it was called in by a juror.

Damon Galgut—The Good Doctor VPL

A tightly-written yet dense novel about South Africa, and its struggle to find a new political balance. I have already confessed that I am past the saturation point with historical war novels and it seems I am now at the same place with South African political novels. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to write a review. Here is one that is fair:


Galgut published his first novel when he was 17 and was well-known and respected as a writer in South Africa when this novel was published. It did put him on the world stage.

Monica Ali—Brick Lane VPL

Category: the immigrant experience in London, this time from the viewpoint of a woman from Bangladesh. From the book flaps:

Monica Ali’s gorgeous first novel is the deeply moving story of one woman, Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and transported to London at age eighteen to enter into an arranged marriage. Already hailed by the London Observer as “one of the most significant British novelists of her generation [huh, how can you say that about a first novel?] Ali has written a stunningly accomplished debut about one outsider’s quest to find her voice.

What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge.”

Nazneen’s inauspicious entry into the world, an apparent stillbirth on the hard mud floor of a village hut, imbues in her a sense of fatalism that she carries across continents when she is married off to Chanu, a man old enough to be her father. Nazneen moves to London and, for years, keeps house, cares for her husband, and bears children, just as a girl from the village is supposed to do. But gradually she is transformed by her experience, and begins to question whether fate controls her or whether she has a hand in her own destiny. Motherhood is a catalyst—Nazneen’s daughters chafe against their father’s traditions and pride—and to her own amazement, Nazneen falls in love with a young man in the community. She discovers both the complexity that comes with free choice and the depth of her attachment to her husband, her daughters and her new world.

While Nazneen journeys along her path of self-realization, her sister, Hasina, rushes headlong at her life, first making a “love marriage,” then fleeing her violent husband. Woven through the novel, Hasina’s letters from Dhaka recount a world of overwhelming adversity. Shaped, yet not bound, by their landscapes and memories, both sisters struggle to dream—and live—beyond the rules of prescribed for them.

Vivid, profoundly humane, and beautifully rendered, Brick Lane captures a world at once unimaginable and achingly familiar. And it establishes Monica Ali as a thrilling new voice in fiction. As Kirkus Reviews said, “She is one of those dangerous writers who see everything.”

At least whoever wrote this blubbering blurb didn’t say “awesome.” I can’t imagine letting a publisher put that write-up on the book flaps. Apart from the over-the-top hype, it also tells the whole story of the novel and tells you how to respond appropriately. Except, the blurb is so focused on the self-realization of Nazneen—pandering to the female reader?—that it misses much of the novel. I’m happy to report that the novel is much better than the blurb suggests.

The plot details of the blurb are correct, as far as they go. The blurb doesn’t mention the heightened political tone of the novel, the Muslim family watching the TV as the Twin Towers fall, gasping at the implications. This is not a misty-eyed treatment of the Muslim struggles and resentments. The young man Nazneen has an affair with is organizing political protests. So, although the tight Muslim community/slum seems isolated from the rest of London, it is also very much a part of the larger and global political situation. Even before but particularly after 9/11, Muslims often feel shunned outside their community. But if you dare to act against accepted Muslim principles and traditions you will find yourself shunned from within the community.

The children of these immigrant families have feet in two worlds, with few skills to negotiate either and as a result get immersed in drugs and violence. The mainstream press talks about Muslim gangs but these young people seem more to be the disenfranchised youth of poverty regardless of race or religion.

The sections about the sister Hasina, once Nanzeen has left for England, are all revealed through letters she writes to Nanzeen. Hasina doesn’t speak let alone write English but rather than use a simple style, Ali uses a mutilated form:

How much I have to praise for Him! How much He have given me! All times I making mistakes, all times I going off from straight Path and He is giving chance again and then again. Here is for me another chance.

It’s tiresome and bogs the novel down unnecessarily. At times, particularly in the early sequences, the language and metaphors are clumsy and cliché, belly ripe as a mango, etc. But overall it was refreshing to read a novel grappling with current issues, with no easy, pat answers.

Margaret Atwood—Oryx and Crake GB library

Snowman, the last man on the planet, tries to figure out the world gone wrong from corporate greed, cloning, genetic modifications and other technologies. I read the novel not long after it was published, and liked it. I don’t think it is Atwood at her best, but it is highly crafted and successful in the creation of a “new” world.

But she did cause a fuss with her comments about Science Fiction:


Clare Morrall—Astonishing Splashes of Colour VPL

The book jackets says, “Caught in an over-vivid world as a result of synaesthesia (a condition in which emotions are seen as colours), Kitty Wellington is tipped off-centre by the loss of a child. And as children all around become emblems of hope and longing and grief, she’s made shockingly aware of the real reasons for her pervasive sense of her own ‘non-existence.’”

The first person narrator never mentions this condition, nor do any of the other characters including a psychologist.

Kitty is the youngest of 6 children. Her mother died when she was 3. Dinah, the other sister in the family ran away when she was 15, before Kitty was born. Kitty had an unconventional upbringing and was raised by her painter father and four doting older brothers.

Kitty is depressed by a miscarriage and the resulting inability to have children. She baby sits the young children of one brother, but inappropriately takes them to see Peter Pan without informing their parents. When the mother arrives home early to an empty house, panic ensues. The theme of lost children and lost mothers permeates the novel.

Kitty is not well equipped to deal with the world. She is married to the man who lives in the flat next door, another shy and withdrawn person. He’s neat. She’s messy. They maintain their independent apartments.

Things start to spin out of control. Kitty spends days riding the buses, not eating, not communicating. She steals a baby from the hospital. She meets a young girl Megan, in the park (a girl she had met earlier at the psychologist’s office) and they sneak the baby into a pram outside a store.

Megan says she has run away from home and will not return. Kitty and Megan decide to go to the seaside. If your believability factor is being stretched, just wait for what is coming.

Kitty tries to take Megan back to her home, but Megan attacks her and runs. Kitty thinks she has gone home but it turns out Megan has followed Kitty to her father’s house (she has been told to go there rather than to her own flat because the police suspect she is the kidnapper). Megan sneaks in while the others are in the kitchen, goes upstairs to the father’s studio and starts a fire. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that Megan is an arsonist, fascinated with matches. Kitty is able to reach Megan and they are rescued by firefighters through a window, but the brother who has been trying to reach them has debris fall on him and dies.

At the funeral—no, I’m not done yet—who should show up but the mother, Margaret. Turns out she isn’t dead at all. She left because of the oppressiveness of the father and he concocted the accident story then spent years destroying her letters so the children never knew. But it also turns out that Kitty is not Margaret’s daughter. She is the daughter of Dinah who really is dead. The book ends with Kitty in the hospital recovering from burns and facing criminal charges. Often reviews refer to the plot devices as “hackneyed.”

I’ve been unfair to this book. It is full of astute observations. For example, here’s an exchange between Kitty and one of her brothers about her miscarriage:

What I mean…is that you’ve not been yourself since—since—“

He wouldn’t say it. Nobody ever does. They come dangerously close, I’m ready from them, but they don’t. It’s as if there is a big hole around it and everyone is afraid of falling in. They teeter on the edge briefly, then turn round and walk away.

This is Morrall’s first published novel, though she had written many in the previous 20 years, all rejected by various UK publishers, as was this one. Finally a small press, Tindall Street Press in Birmingham—a press that was started to provide some alternative to the big London houses—agreed to publish the novel.

DBC Pierre—Vernon God Little purchased—WINNER

Jean’s Booker ClubTo tell the plot of this novel is a bit of a cheat, since the careful unfolding of details is one of its accomplishments. The main character, Vernon Gregory Little, lives in a small town in Texas named Martirio. His best friend, Jesus, has shot sixteen of his classmates, injured a teacher then turned the gun on himself. “They” believe that Vernon had some role in the massacre and he is being questioned.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it. But the novel is told in Vernon’s voice, a sensitive white trash kid in a redneck small town. It’s sassy, smart-ass and full of wonderful wisecracks.

“A jury would convict him on his fucken shoes alone.”

The first section takes place in Martirio in the few days and weeks after the massacre. All of the Booker club members had trouble with this section, for various reasons. It’s clever, perhaps too clever. Things go wrong—Vernon is sent for a psychiatric examination and is sexually molested by the doctor; his mother starts a sexual relationship with a supposed-CNN reporter; the reporter does a special and says Vernon has confessed to him; the assigned lawyer appears to be a bumbling incompetent, and so on. It gets a bit tedious and show-offy—yes, yes, we get it. The characters are stereotypes—sex-obsessed single woman, self-important policeman, hypocritical churchgoers. Pauline said it dragged and that she would not have carried on if it weren’t for the club.

At the same time, we delighted in the language, the energy and playfulness—even when on occasion it gets away from Pierre.

In the second section Vernon goes to Mexico, stopping en route to meet an older girl he has a crush on; she is now attending university. But it was the third section, after the older university girl has turned Vernon in, set up by the conniving CNN reporter, that got Booker club members excited. Or as Pauline said, “when I woke up.” Vernon stops being a passive patsy and starts to take charge of his situation. The sass and wisecracking turns more to reflection.

One of the themes of the novel is the way the press exploit mass grief. And as a result, grief becomes a commodity. The CNN guy pitches a story idea—let the public vote to see which guy on death row will be the next to die. Cameras are set up in the cells so the convicts can be viewed 24/7. Eventually Vernon’s time does come. George B said he was delighted by the ambiguity of the ending and gave the novel his highest score to date, an 8-. Keep in mind that in GB’s assessment The Sound and the Fury would score 9.5.

Renee and Pauline also liked the writing, though Pauline found it too long. 8 and 7.75 from these two.

The rest of us all gave it 7. We thought it was a good book but found the cleverness factor too irritating.

DBC Pierre is a pseudonym and was the first novel for Peter Warren Finlay, in real life a real character.

DJ Taylor, from The Guardian

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading all the books – 113 of them, I believe, in that year – but there was a certain amount of pleasure to be gained from the attendant razzmatazz, the thought that for a very brief period in the year an artefact routinely overlooked by large swathes of an indifferent media was suddenly news. There were several memorable clashes of opinion, the funniest by far coming when the chair, John Carey, trying desperately to persuade us of the merits of Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog, read aloud from a paragraph describing the death-throes of a dying fly, at which point Francine Stock and I caught each other’s eye across the table and began to giggle. The judging process was pretty much a waste of time as all four of the other judges arrived at the longlist meeting convinced that DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little was one of the great masterpieces of the early 21st century, whereas I thought that it was a promising first novel. This meant that the final judging session lasted a bare 10 minutes, after which I had to sit discussing the existence (or non-existence) of God with AC Grayling, a subject on which both of us hold strong views.

Judging process a waste of time.” I think he might be on to something there. It certainly doesn’t sound as if there was much discussion. Perhaps that explains why Coetzee and Amis were both left off the short list in favour of several first novels.



  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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