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Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge?

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge?Last week, while the Chair of the 2012 Man Booker Prize judges Peter Stothard was claiming that book bloggers are ‘harming literature’, I was busy sifting through the incredibly diverse and original ‘Best Book I’ve Read This Year’ entries in the competition to celebrate my first year doing just that.

Blogging about books, that is.

The range of books nominated inspired me to write about literary taste; I hadn’t planned to write about the Blogging v. Criticism debacle until it occurred to me that there’s a connection.  Stothard believes that ‘traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline,’ and bloggers are at least partly to blame.  He predicts that ‘People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.’

What?

How do you feel about the idea of a select group of individuals being appointed to tell the rest of us what is good and no good?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with me even though I think professional literary criticism is valuable and important.  On the whole, I don’t think the critics themselves are guilty of such arrogance.  Literary merit is not an absolute – it’s a question of taste and opinion; just look at the vastly differing reviews J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy has attracted.  The more I discover about the publishing business, the more I hear, ‘it’s very subjective,’ and whilst it’s one thing not to acknowledge professional critics’ subjectivity, it’s another entirely to allege that bloggers are damaging literature by ‘sharing their own taste,’ inviting others into what is essentially a conversation.  Bloggers and professional critics are not in competition.  Readers decide whose opinions and recommendations they want to pay attention to and how much relative weight to give them.  I see blogging as an extension of word of mouth, which is known to be a huge factor affecting book purchase and selection.  We are free to do it.  Lamenting the rise of book bloggers is about as futile as trying to stop people talking about books in the street.

I’m so glad I asked you to tell me about the book you’ve most enjoyed reading so far this year and thank you all for your interest – the competition had hundreds of hits and I bet many of them were people as fascinated by the nominations as I was.  Since the number of entries was a manageable 27,  I spent an enjoyable couple of hours yesterday researching the titles and analysing the results.  Don’t ever say I don’t take you seriously…

There were so many surprises!  At first I felt inadequate having read only a quarter, but I suppose it could have been a lot worse considering you could nominate any book, published any year, ever.  In fact, very few of the books chosen were published in 2012 and some were decades old:  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992), an international bestseller long before the Scandinavian bandwagon came to town.  There were 3 novels that were already on my TBR list, two of them by Brooklyn authors which I’m planning to read when I go back there at the end of the month – Great House by Nicole Krauss and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  The third is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, which I wouldn’t have considered before hearing the author speak at the York Festival of Writing, for reasons well-articulated by my fellow blogger Helen Mackinven.  That would have been my loss, and I’m really looking forward to reading my signed copy now.

I was struck by the variety of books named in the entries, which included titles, authors and even genres I’d never even heard of.  (Iain M Banks’s Surface Detail is ‘everything a space opera should be’ – I’ll take your word for that).  Settings varied from Mumbai (Shantaram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts), to post-hurricane Mississippi (Salvage the Bones (2011)by Jesmyn Ward) to the Caribbean following a flood (Archipelago (2012) by Monique Roffey).  Non-fiction made an appearance too:  Must Have – The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy (2010) by Geoffrey Miller, which I would read with trepidation!

I also asked competition entrants to give the reasons for their choice, and the entries are proof, if it were needed (and it really isn’t), that you don’t need to be a professional critic to have finely attuned critical skills and the ability to articulate them.  There were many insightful observations on writing, structure, characterisation, plot, of the kind you’d find on the best book blogs – speaking of which, I’ve recently discovered a very impressive one – Words of Mercury by philosopher Alan Bowden, who’s just been announced as a runner-up in the And Other Stories short story competition.

Literary Taste – Who’s to Judge?
Inevitably, a few of your nominations made it onto my already monstrous TBR list.  I liked the sound of This is How You Lose Her (2012), a collection of linked stories about a Latino love rat in New Jersey by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, and although the winning entries were picked at random, I’m definitely going to read First Prize winner Claire Snook’s choice, Heaven and Hell, the English language debut of Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson.  One of many we can chat about during our Literary Lunch next month!

I don’t have space to mention all the entries, but  you can see the originals in full here – they make a great set of recommendations, very different to any listing I would have come up with.

So, I’m embarking on my second year On the Literary Sofa with more enthusiasm than ever.  Thanks for your support and welcome to the many new followers here and on Twitter who found me through the competition.  I’ll keep blogging as long as you keep reading.

We aren’t harming literature, we’re keeping it alive.  Aren’t we?


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