Recent debate over criteria for literary prizes, the Booker in particular, has seen luminaries like Andrew Motion and Jeanette Winterson, rolling up their sleeves and leaping into the fray with vituperative columns and retaliatory launching of rival awards. In preparation for the event itself, the literati donned their tuxedos and designer frocks with disdain. The raised highbrows and rolling eyes were slightly mollified by the winner, Julian Barnes, who was deemed to be the best of a readable lot.
There has been much discussion of literary terminology lately - ‘readability’ was the first to be misunderstood and somehow equated with dumbing-down. Heaven forbid one should actually want to read a book. Booker judge, Chris Mullin, suggested that a book should zip along but there were many that felt that zipping did not befit a literary book’s dignity. Dame Stella Rimington, Booker chair and former head of MI5, may have also alienated the literary community by comparing them to the KGB in her speech. Jeanette Winterson retaliated against zippy books with the requirement that they should be daunting – a literary mountain one should climb on foot rather than compromise one’s principles by taking the funicular. Stephanie Meyer was dragged in again as the much maligned queen of ‘readability’ in the worst sense of the word. I could be wrong but I suspect the millions of dollars’ worth of royalties adequately compensate for the lack of literary kudos. There have also been brow distinctions made – the Booker shortlist was reportedly not highbrow enough. I was a little bemused to read in The Guardian that Daphne Du Maurier was considered ‘middlebrow’. I’m not even sure I know what that means apart from the fact that it evokes strong mental images of Frieda Kahlo.
In response, as an alternative to the as-yet unformed Literature Prize, I would like to propose a new ‘Premier-Brow Dauntingly-Unreadable’ prize. It has become abundantly clear that there is a gap in the market for this type of prize and it would serve several purposes. It gives the general public a definitive list of aspirational books to buy for their bookshelves – books they never intend to read but require to impress visitors and appear intellectual. It would also prevent those embarrassing mistakes in consequence of misleading cover designs and confusingly similar author’s names. The books would not sell well in e-book form as anyone who actually could be bothered to wade through them would want a physical copy as proof afterwards and thus independent book shops would be kept afloat to ferry these tomes. Only small independent publishers would be eligible to submit for this prize which would help to rescue them from the imminent threat of an Amazon monopoly. Sensitive, highly-strung literary authors need not fear accusations of selling out if they were honoured on this list and the judges would all be authors of similarly dauntingly-unreadable books so would be well qualified to plough through lofty prose and, one might even suggest, deserving of a dose of their own literary medicine. Everybody wins.