Thursday, October 19, 2006

Know Your Enemy

"Naively, I suppose, I was rather startled by the amount of extra-literary white noise there was, getting in between us and our books. First there's the apparatus on the proof-copies, which I know is now a necessary part of the publishing process. But I did begin to develop an allergy to phrases like 'unputdownable' or 'must-read of the year' or 'fast-page-turner'; for the adverb 'deeply' (as in compassionate, sympathetic, moving - but never as in 'putdownable'); and for the 'X meets Y' formula, as in 'Ian McEwan meets John le Carre, or (my favourite) 'Roddy Doyle meets Angela Carter'.

I began to ask myself why the promise of '£100,000 marketing campaign including Central London bus sides' or 'samplers to be handed out on the streets' or 'plasma screens at key commuter stations' should convince me this was a novel worth reading. I treated with suspicion the novel which came with a red strap-line on the cover reading 'Man Booker 2006 Submitted!', or which told me 'The Ultimate Experience Is About To Begin', or that it had taken 30 years to write, or which announced itself as 'unforgivably nasty' or 'appallingly intelligent'.

I began to fantasise about manuscripts arriving in brown paper wrappers, with no name, no author photograph, no praise, and no biography. Well, why not? an anonymous Man Booker prize!

Another form of pressure I'd not really thought about before, since I've usually been on the other side of the fence, comes from reviewers who want to tell the judges their business. 'Booker judges, take note!', coming from a reviewer whose views you particularly dislike, makes it hard to do justice to that particular novel. 'This author's superiority to the average put him well beyond the competence of Booker judges' struck me as an encomium that could backfire.

Writing in the Guardian, Hermione Lee, chair of the Booker judges this year, is unsurprisingly sick of "extra-literary white noise" ie publishers' guff. "Appallingly intelligent"? I know what she means...

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