by Elizabeth Baines
On being appointed a judge of this year’s (ultimately controversial) Booker prize, novelist Susan Hill told Robert McCrum in an interview for The Guardian, "I don't mind experiment if there's a genius behind it. If you're James Joyce, you can write Ulysses. But I don't want experiment from writers who can't do the real thing."
That’s reasonable, isn’t it? We all know, don’t we, that the rules might be there to be broken (by geniuses), but any genius must know those rules first, which means knowing how to use them, which means practising first (and in the process proving you know how to use them)? And who wants any novels at all, leave alone experimental ones, from writers who can’t really write? And isn’t it true (I think this is one of her implications) that often writers who can’t write hide their lack of ability with a faux-experimentalism which is really obfuscation?
No, she doesn’t mind experimentation by geniuses. Doesn’t mind: she doesn’t love it, it really isn’t her bag – indeed, she revealed on Twitter recently that Ulysses is her number one ‘unreadable book’. She’s by no means alone: as Will Self noted recently, there are lots of people who feel the same. She’ll tolerate its existence, we can basically conclude. Well, fair enough. We’re all entitled to our taste, and we should, like Hill herself, tolerate the taste of others.
But look at her last three words. To Susan Hill experimental novels are not the real thing. The real thing, by implication, is non-experimental novels, novels that conform to conventional or recognizable modes. The real thing implies both authenticity and superiority: conventionally-written books are better than experimental ones. No wonder that there were good but eccentric and unfamiliar books left off this years’ Booker shortlist.
Well, here’s a different view: when I pick up a novel that doesn’t stretch the form or do exciting things with language, I am overcome by a claustrophobic sense of unreality, the sense of being half awake and unable to shake off an old, recurring, stifling dream. When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live. I feel in touch with reality. I feel alive. I tell you, it’s the real thing.
Photo by fastLizard
by Elizabeth Baines