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Three Terrible Ways to Judge a Book, and Two Better Ones - by Garry Craig Powell

Ivan Bunin, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933

The recent hiatus in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature led me to consider what criteria are taken into consideration for literary prizes, and indeed for judging works of literature at all.

A perusal of the list of winners of the Nobel from 1901 onwards makes it clear that the prize has often been awarded for political reasons—the clearest example is Winston Churchill’s winning it after the Second World War—and often for quasi-political reasons, such as the understandable and in itself laudable desire to recognise the work of writers working in lesser-known languages like Hungarian, Greek or Swedish. (Sweden has eight winners of the prize, perhaps unsurprisingly, which makes it the best represented country of all, proportionate to its population.) I am not suggesting that the Swedes have done worse than anyone else would have. But what should be the criteria for judging a work of fiction?

First, obviously enough, it should not be anything to do with the author’s background, however heroic, admirable, or pitiable. In a recent article in The Guardian, on a list of the ten most important current British novelists, it was noted that more than half were women, ‘which is a good thing’. I was struck by that apparently unexceptional phrase, because it was not supported by any arguments; it was simply assumed that most readers would agree. And no doubt they would: most Guardian readers with an interest in literature are women, or men with liberal views who either subscribe to feminist views or would be embarrassed to admit that they didn’t. But let’s think about what’s being proposed here: the author is approving of a list of writers that favours one gender over the other, in principle, regardless of the quality of the work under consideration. I quite see that it could be argued that the judges or critics were merely redressing a centuries-old prejudice that worked in favour or men. But it was the casualness of the assumption that in itself a list that has more women authors than men is a good thing, with no reference to the quality of what they had written, that disturbed me. It may very well be that, in the opinion of the judges, the best writers in Britain now really are women—though it struck me as strange that Rushdie, Ishiguro, McEwan and Amis were all absent—but that was not the point made. The author was happy simply because most of the lauded writers were women. It would not be hard to find people delighted by the representation of other ‘minorities’ in such lists. Again, let me be clear: I am not against appreciating the writing of ethnic minorities, or women, or people of any sexual orientation or sex. What I question is whether these are appropriate criteria for judging their books.

Second, we shouldn’t be judging novels by the values of our time. Many brilliant writers are out of fashion because their authors are supposed (often unjustly) to be racist, misogynist, homophobic, etc. More often, their characters exhibit these traits, and the so-called ‘critic’ commits the unpardonable sin (for a literary critic) of identifying the author with his or her—but usually his—characters. Thus, Philip Roth’s books are sexist because his male protagonists are; ditto for those of Martin Amis or John Fowles. The clerical judges of Iran declared that Salman Rushdie was in a state of apostasy, not because of anything he stated in his own voice, but because of views and actions of his entirely imagined characters. Shocking as that was, more shocking still was the fact that many western liberal intellectuals criticised Rushdie for his ‘assault on Islam’—which only proved that they had no more understanding of the nature of fiction than did Iranian clerics.

Third, novels should not be praised simply because they deal with fashionable themes in an approved way. No decent person approves of child rape or racism, but that doesn’t mean that a bad book on these themes should be read. Again and again novels are hailed as ‘brave and urgent’ simply because their protagonists are victims of abuse or oppression. In fact it doesn’t take courage to write such books in a climate of universal approval.

So how should we judge the quality of a book? Purely from an aesthetic standpoint? Although the aesthetics are vital—if a novel is a work of art, it must be skilfully written, with fresh language, no clichés, strong imagery, and a coherent structure—that surely isn’t enough. We must consider content. The story should tell us something about what it is like to be a human being at this time—that is, the time the book was written or in which it is set—or, better yet, what it is like to be a human being at any time. So the best fiction not only reflects (not ‘approves’) the values of its characters, but ideally makes us reflect on universal predicaments, such as the meaning of life, whether we have freedom, whether God might exist, and what morality means. It doesn’t preach; it encourages the reader to come to her own, or his own, conclusions. Much current fiction, including so-called literary fiction, fails this test. Its purpose is to proselytise. Often, it is a thinly disguised essay (or memoir).

The best novels are works of the imagination—whether based on real events or not—that dramatise ethical problems and paradoxes, and metaphysical conundrums. They make the reader feel more alert and alive, and also, inescapably, more compassionate. So they have a moral dimension, and yet their prime purpose is not social engineering of any kind, but individual enlightenment and aesthetic delight. Until we understand this again, maybe it’s better that we stop awarding prizes, or making judgements about novels. They are not polemical essays but works of art, enchanting stories that illuminate the world we live in.

(This is a slightly modified form of an essay that first appeared in Late Last Night Books.)

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