Monday, 18 October 2010

You Stupid Bookers

The 2010 Man Booker Prize winner was announced recently; it ended up being Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I'm willing to bet was probably an entertaining read - something that is quite unusual in Booker winners - as I've read some of Jacobson's stuff before and always liked it. (I doubt any American readers have heard of him; he's sort of like the British Jewish equivalent of Tom Robbins without so much of the fourth-wall-breaking.)

But it comes just as I'm re-reading Vance's Dying Earth stories, and the confluence of the two events really does hit home precisely how stupid and blinkered supposedly intellectual people can be. We fantasy fans are worldly enough by now to know that the literati loathe the genre, and fantasy authors will never get recognition even when they deserve it - that's par for the course; indeed it's a truism. But every so often a moment like this comes along and really hammers home the point: a man who could write something so absolutely perfect in every way as the Cugel stories had more creative power in his little finger than every Man Booker prize winner since the competition began, and yet his career gets almost no mention in any sort of discourse on modern literature - indeed I would be surprised to learn any literary establishment figures in the UK had even heard of him (I can't speak for the US.)

There are moments reading Vance where he is simply so brilliant, so much of a virtuoso, that you can hardly stand it. My particular favourite episode in all of the work of his that I've read is the chapter called (I think; I don't have the book in front of me) "At the Inn of the Blue Lamps", which comes near the start of Cugel's Saga. The depiction of gradual descent into drunkenness of the characters involved, the understated humour, the slightly sardonic detached tone in which it is written, and the joyous unfurling of the tightly-wrought and carefully constructed plot (the creation of which you haven't even noticed because it has been done with such aplomb) - it's enough to make you remember all over again just why literature is enjoyable and important. And yet, because it doesn't pretend to say anything about the human condition, or contemporary geopolitics, or gender, or multiculturalism, or [insert liberal bete noire of the week here], it apparently isn't worthy of the attention of anybody with a brain. What a strange and mysterious world we live in.


  1. I'm not sure that Fantasy literature is doomed to eternal lack of recognition in the literary community. It seems to me tha in Western cultures, the age-range to which Fantasy appeals is moving steadily upward.

  2. Hmmm, oddly enough, I love Vance, but I've never heard of Booker, or this award.
    I am libertarian-leaning midwestern american philistine though, so it's possible that my tastes are insufficently refined. heh..

  3. It's easy. If you say your fantasy novel is, in fact, "magical realism" then the literati will love it.

  4. Kelvin gets it in one.

    I'd never heard of the Booker prize either until I worked at an independent bookstore--then all of a sudden I was supposed to care. No thanks.

  5. I don't quite know how to say this nicely, but I've noticed in my life that people who read every booker prize winner (and other kinds of critically acclaimed literature of that sort) tend to really annoy me. Whether they're liberal or not.

    I don't think I've ever read a Booker prize winning book (maybe Rohinton Mistry? I'm not sure) but something about the world connected to it seems terribly pretentious and self-consciously politically engaged. I bet Polly Toynbee has read all of them.

  6. Was my comment just eaten by a grue?

    I'll try again.

    You don't know about the Booker Prize? I'd say most people interested in literature English speaking world knew about it. I guess I was wrong.


    I'd say that Vance's stories could easily be said to be about the human condition, geopolitics and whatnot. They also often happens to be ripping good yarns. Good stories can be both.

  7. Having just re-read that chapter myself, I concur wholeheartedly.

    I think this chapter is Vance in his high Wodehousian mode. Vance has acknowledged the influence, and I find it has gotten stronger over the years. A lot of Vance's recent books can be read as mannered comedies, rife with meddling aunts, romantic mismatches and midnight flights from awkward situations, that happen to be set in the far corners of the galaxy or the far future of earth.