The longlist for the most prestigious literary award in the UK has been announced – 22 titles on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize. Actually I am surprised to see so many of the big players being passed over this year in favour of new blood – I approve of this and certainly the stuffy old Booker does need a fair old spring cleaning and updating. Prestigious perhaps, but also often pretentious – I get the impression as both a reader and a bookseller that this is often a judging panel which picks ‘literary’ fiction of the sort that will make them look ever so clever and cultured for picking it. There have been some more interesting, fresher and – gasp – more popular choices in recent years, with DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little or Arnudhati Roy springing to mind.
However once more the unspoken rule of the literary snobs has been enforced – there are no genre titles in here. There are, as pretty much always, no Science Fiction, Horror, Crime or Romance novels. Why is this? The Booker is set up to select from the last year’s FICTION, looking for good writing. It does not proscribe the genres in the rules, yet every year it discriminates against them.
Now, I am not calling for an opening of the floodgates – plenty of genre titles are workmanlike at best and not worthy of consideration – but then I could say the same of bestselling and ‘literary’ fiction (what do they mean? No-one can properly quantify this but they still use it. I think they are afraid to explain it because it reveals that the only distinction is one of snobbery). However, if you set up a fiction prize to pick the finest writing then why do you discriminate automatically against so many genres and authors (and by inference their millions of readers)??? This is the literary equivelant of apartheid and is despicable and indefensible. Why, for instance, is Neal Stephenson’s stunning piece of prose, Quicksilver, not on the list? In my professional opinion it could trounce most of the books on the longlist for style, wit, invention, erudtion, scholarly accuracy and wonder, easily the equal of Umberto Eco. Yet this literary masterpiece is not in there, because, I believe, it is tarred with the genre label. No wonder the genre fans and writers have their own awards, such as the Edgars or CWAs for Crime, the Bram Stoker or the Arthur C Clarke Award (won of course by Quicksilver this year).
I have made this speech and many similar ones on far too many occasions. I’m tired of having to make this argument. I’m tired of arguing for something that should be obvious by rights. But I have a Dream.
(apologies to the great Martin Luther King)