How do they decide? Booker shortlist.

In my last post, I argued that critics tend to look for innovation in writing, rather than ‘quality’.  This argument appears to be validated (at least in part) by the shortlist selections for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

There was a commentary in the Evening Standard on September 13 written by the Literary Editor, David Sexton, from which I quote.

“This year’s Man Booker shortlist is a total surprise.  The two most obvious contenders from the longlist failed to make the cut,  Colson Whitehead’s vivid, inventive novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad. has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award in the United States, and been warmly endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.  Now it has been discarded by the Booker.

“Sebastian Barry’s lyrical ballad about a young Irishman and  his partner fighting through the Civil War in America, Days Without End, won him the Costa Book Award last year – but it doesn’t figure either.  Booksellers will be clasping their heads today.

“Could the judges, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, have possibly been influenced by a desire not to be seen to be following the other big prizes and so seem behind the pace?  Surely not, because the prize’s one criterion is to find ‘the best novel of the year’. regardless.  The problem is that the five judges change every year, so there is no consistency and rarely any clear agreement, producing the erratic decisions that the Booker is famous for – including many terrible eventual winners.  When Julian Barnes dismissed the prize (before he won it) as ‘posh bingo’, he did it too much honour.

“The committee system is simply not a good way of determining ultimate literary value.  If you rope together five individuals and they charge off eagerly in different directions, they are likely all to end up flat on their faces – as I know from my own experience.  Camels are animals designed by committee, and Booker shortlists are compromises.

“Lola Young emphasises that the judges have discovered ‘six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention’.  Perhaps that is all convention ever deserves, to be intrepidly but collectively pushed against?

“The shortlist is certainly great news for the debut novelists, Emily Fridlund. 38, and Fiona Mozley, 29.  Our reviewer called the latter’s novel, Ehmet, ‘a wonder to behold’ and hoped this David would conquer the Goliaths of the Booker.  However, of the novels that have survived this eccentric winnowing, the favourite to win, if it is determined on merit, must surely be Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, a writer who first came to prominence here through being awarded the Booker’s rival, the Folio Prize, for his short stories.  It’s and extraordinary invention: voices from limbo, counsel from the afterlife, heard as President Lincoln grieves his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.  ‘A dark imagination in service of a tender heart’, said our reviewer Johanna Thomas-Corr.  Properly unique.”

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize is:

  • Elmet, by Fiona Mozley
  • Autumn, by Ali Smith
  • 4321, by Paul Auster
  • History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund
  • East West, by Mohsin Hamid
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Critique of Criticism

“There are many differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this.  Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.”

This was how Michael Deacon began his review of the Magpie restaurant on Heddon Street on London.  The Telegraph  lists him as a ‘Parliamentary Sketchwriter’; Wikipedia says he is a British author and political satirist.  In any event, I thought, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’.  The review appeared in The Telegraph Magazine on the 2nd of September.  If you’re interested in food, he gave the Magpie four stars and said, “With no menus, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required.  Most of the food was terrific.  Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences”

Michael Deacon

He went on to say, “It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting.  In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary.  To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable.  More important for music to be original than tuneful.  More important for a play to be original than enjoyable.  Novelty trumps all.  Pleasure is a lesser concern.

“There are two reasons for this.  First, insecurity.  A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics.  He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim.  He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it.  He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.

“The second reason is just as crucial.  Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature.  In essay after essay, the same topics recur.  An exhausting majority of students have written about the set texts.  Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired.  So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught  on the course may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior.  The marker is simply relieved by the change in scene.  That’s what critics are like.  Sooner or later they run out of things to say about the conventional.  Hey ho, another romantic comedy.  Yawn, another detective thriller.  So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude.  What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant.  What matters is, it’s given the critic something new to write about.  The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.

“But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest.  It applies to restaurant critics, too.  And so when I go out to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though?  Am I genuinely enjoying myself?  Honestly?  Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s just made  my job easier?”

Five stars to Michael Deacon!

Review: The Bestseller Code

I mentioned The Best Seller Code in my recent post of August 4th, where I commented on a review by Sandra Elliot for The Florida Writer.  Now, having read the book, I can give you my own reactions.

First, let me say that it is a ‘must read’ for aspiring novelists, not because it reveals all the secrets of creating a bestseller (which it doesn’t), but because it will give you insights into your own writing’s weaker points.  (Assuming that there are a few.)

One aspect of the book that I found frustrating at the outset was that there was no discussion about how the ‘almost five thousand ‘ novels which were read by computer were selected.  Five hundred to these (10%) were best sellers.  Presumably all genres were represented, but in what sort of distribution?  Equal balance of male and female writers?  How about the age and background of the authors?  (There are comments on the back grounds of best-selling authors.)  What about the authors’ nationalities?  (Although all are presumably English-speaking.)  There was no mention of the age distribution of the novels, although all of the bestsellers mentioned are recent novels.  To what extent do readers’ tastes change over time?  How about the type of publisher (traditional vs indie) and the marketing budget?

There are a number of examples of the characteristics of books which tend to make them best sellers, or not, and these, of course are helpful.  But the authors admit that their computer model is only 80% accurate in predicting whether a novel will be a bestseller.  The methodology of the authors’ research used three different mapping algorithms to compare hundreds of dimensions in ‘space’.  One dimension, for example, is the use of the word ‘very’.  It turns our that authors who use ‘very’ frequently in their text are less likely to produce bestsellers.  Particular dimensions may be quite influential in predicting bestsellers.  An example is ‘human closeness’.  The computer reads the text looking for words and arrangement of words which mean that the author is writing about human closeness.  It turns out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not a best seller because of its sexual content, but because of its human closeness.

The computer was 71% accurate in identifying the gender of the author.  Three genres that have difficulty achieving bestseller status are romance, science fiction and fantasy.

Some of the dimensions which contribute to good public acceptance include: emotional cycles; active, rather than passive characters; characters who need rather than wish for; author’s distinctive style (J K Rowling’s first incognito novel was recognised not by its subject but by her style).

Topics that readers like include: marriage, death, taxes (really), modern technology, funerals, guns, school, work, doctors, presidents, kids, moms, and the media.  Less popular subjects are: sex (except in a small erotic genre), big emotions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties.

For me, the chapter on style was particularly interesting as it included a number of specific examples and commentary on why a particular style is effective.  I also believe that I need to work harder at bringing life to what my characters are feeling in subtle but effective ways.

Having said all this, I think it’s important to keep one vital point in perspective.  There are many award-winning novels which are clearly labours of love by their authors, memorable for their readers, and which never make the bestseller list.

 

Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: The Rover

My blog of April 17, Review: Today, concerned a novel by David Miller on the death of Joseph Conrad.  Since I had never read any of Conrad’s work, I bought Selected Short Stories and The Rover, by Conrad.  As well as The Rover.  the book includes eleven of Conrad’s twenty-six short stories, selected and commented on by Dr Keith Carabine of the University of Kent.  In his introduction to the stories, Dr Carabine says that Conrad’s great distinction “lies in his ingenious and rigorous exploration of the undiscovered possibilities latent in one of the genre’s most familiar forms, namely the framed short story in which a first-person narrator (who is sometimes a member of the group) introduces, comments on and encloses another’s tale.”  As Dr Carabine says, the theme of most of the stories is man’s fate, and they are often “teasing and enigmatic”.  The framed construction of these stories introduces uncertainty in that the main narrator and the teller of the tale may have different interpretations of the events, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Two other general points I would make about Conrad’s writing.  First, he does not take great pains to capture the interest and attention of the reader at the beginning of a story.  The beginning may be a page of detailed description of the opening scene, with little information about the character who is present, and a considerable, almost poetic word picture of the setting.  In fact, Conrad’s word pictures of scenes are remarkable in their shaping of the mood of the story: mysterious, uncertain, uncommon, unusual.  Moreover, Conrad is lavish in the extent of his descriptions throughout a piece.  Some of this may be attributable to his writing for commercial publication in up-market magazines, where his compensation would be based, at least partially, on the word count.  Each of these stories has at least one principal character who is confronted with some sort of existential challenge and has defects in his character which contribute to his downfall.  Nonetheless, the reader is drawn into his predicament, hoping all the while, that the right solution will be found.

The principal character in The Rover, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, is an ageing, sea-faring, privateer who has come ashore in the south of France to take his ease.  There is also a dim-witted and committed old revolutionary, a young woman who has been psychologically damaged be the horrors of the revolution, a royalist French naval officer, and an aspiring young British naval officer, each of whom seeks his/her own solutions in the world. Who will succeed?  The ingredients in the story include a plan to deceive the British fleet, as well as a search for love, and a re-ordering of the world between revolutionary-royalist lines, and a rough but beautiful Mediterranean sea coast backed up against a traditional rural society.

One comes to have sympathy for the dilemmas of each of the flawed but real characters, and one can sense the tensions between them, as well as having a sensation of being on the rough bucolic scene, or on board one of the ships.  The Rover is an engrossing tale.  The one aspect which I found annoying was the slow pace of the conclusion.  One cold feel it coming, but Conrad was in no hurry to jump into it.  There was much detailed scene setting and character back-story telling.  We were familiar with the scenes, and the character enhancements should – I think – have come earlier.  Nonetheless, The Rover is a satisfying and interesting tale.

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

A friend of my wife’s gave me this book to read with assurances that I would certainly enjoy it.  One night, when I was about half way through the book, there was an interview of the author, Elizabeth Strout, by George Alagiah on the BBC World News channel.  The interview was recorded at the last Hay Festival.  I warmed to Ms Strout – in part – because two nights previously there was another interview from Hay of a poet, whose name I don’t recall, and whom I found unintelligible.  In her interview at the Hay festival,  Ms Strout said that her writing is shaped by the ordinary people she knew in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout was born in 1956 in Portland, Maine,  She attended Bates College and the University of Syracuse.  She waitressed before writing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Her debut was met with widespread critical acclaim, became a national bestseller, and was adapted into a movie.  She has since written five novels, My Name is Lucy Barton  being her fifth.  Her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, was published in 2008. The book features a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.   Louisa Thomas of the New York Times said: “The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling—a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”

Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton is centered on the unexpected interaction between Lucy Barton, who is in hospital suffering from complications following surgery, and her estranged mother, who has flown east to be with her.  Throughout the book, Lucy has recollections about her childhood in rural Illinois with an impoverished family: distant father and mother, a sister and brother.  Lucy, herself, has gained an education, a marriage, two small daughters, and a career as a writer in New York City, thus estranging herself from her family.  The dialogue between the two women is both limited in the sense that there are unspoken words, and informative in revealing something of their respective characters.  Ms Strout strikes this balance in her writing very well.  She also uses the descriptive recollections of people of the past to elucidate some of the values of the principal characters.  She uses unique voices which shed light on the characters, and her writing style flows simply.  Characterisation is clearly Ms Strout’s strength.

My Name is Lucy Barton is, at 188 pages, short enough to be considered a novella, rather than a novel.  For me, while the writing flows beautifully and the characters are very much alive and their circumstances unique, what was missing was how and why the current circumstances arose.  Why, for example, did Lucy’s father lock her in his pickup for hours – on one occasion with a large brown snake?  We are told that is was a frequent occurrence, but we don’t know why, and knowing why and how it came about would shed further light on the characters.  All of the characters are certainly interesting, but I feel like a hungry diner who was served only an appetizer.

“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?

Review: Song of Solomon

A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader.  In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison.  I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.

Toni Morrison

Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”

The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.”  Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism.  All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities.  The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory.  It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are.  There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers.  He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.

For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience.  One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends.  One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition.  One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation.  The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable.  The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive.  Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.

Erudite Writing

A friend was telling me about a book she was having trouble reading and enjoying.  She (a well-educated woman) said the “writing is over the top; I have to stop now and then to look up word.  Why can’t authors simplify their writing?  Why do they have to make it so complicated?”  He husband added, “There seems to be a trend for authors to try to position themselves above their readers, and to win the admiration of critics.”  I agreed with both points, and I said that, “It seems to me that writers who are aiming for big prizes use extraordinary language to express themselves: not only in vocabulary, but in sentence structure, grammar and imagery.  Prose is becoming poetry for the benefit of the critics.”

As evidence of this trend, there are three passages below.  The first is from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  The second is how I think I would have tried to write the same passage, and the third is in ordinary English.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

After the news of his death in the plane crash reached her, she had tormented herself by inventing him: by speculating, that is to say, about her lost lover.  He had been the first man she had slept with in more than five years: no small figure in her life.  She had turned away from her sexuality, her instincts having warned her that to do otherwise might be to be absorbed by it; that it was for her, would always be, a big subject, a whole dark continent to map and she wasn’t prepared to go that way, be that explorer, chart those shores: not any more, or, maybe, not yet.  But she’d never shaken off the feeling of being damaged by her ignorance of love, of what it might be like to be wholly possessed by that archetypal, capitalised jinn, the yearning towards, the blurring of the boundaries of the self, the unbuttoning, until you were open from your adam’s apple to your crotch: just words, because she didn’t know the thing.  Suppose he had come to me, she dreamed.  I could have learned him, step by step, climbed him to the very summit.  Denied mountains by my weak-boned feet, I’d have looked for the mountain in him: establishing base camp, sussing out routes, negotiating ice-falls, crevasses, overhangs.  I’d have assaulted the peak and seen the angels dance.  O, but he’s dead and at the bottom of the sea.

William Peace

When she learned of his death in the plane crash, she agonised over day dreams of her perished lover.  As the first man she had slept with in over five years, he represented a kind of icon.  In his absence, she had repressed her sexuality out of a fear that to live and examine it would somehow frighten and diminish her.  Her ignorance of the bright spectrum of love, was a source of insecurity, and sometimes she longed to know the feeling – whatever it was – of merging one’s consciousness with that of a lover.  But, if her lover had been there she would have eschewed any leap into the heavens of love; rather she would establish a safe and slow process to advance into the heights until, in her glory, she saw the angels dance.  But, alas, her lover lay at the bottom of the sea, dead.

Plain English

Ever since the news of his death reached her, she thought of him, the first man – remarkably – she had slept with in five years.  She set aside her interest in sex out of fear of stepping into the unknown.  Nonetheless, her ignorance of love bothered her, and she wondered what it would be like to experience true and selfless love.  If her lover had been present, she would not have thrown herself into an unlimited relationship; she would have approached the situation gradually, learning and advancing slowly so that eventually she would have found true bliss.  But, of course, her lover was dead.

I’m not, by any means, suggesting that my text is in any way better that Rushdie’s.  I rather like his use of off-the-wall phrases like ‘archetypal, capitalised jinn’, but I would never think of it; and I like some of his images, which border on the poetic.  However, one has to be pretty well educated to read Rushdie.  So who is he writing for?  Critics and academics, or Mrs Smith, book reader?