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My wish list: Brian Bethune on books

More readable fare is one thing, but enough with the populist gimmicks tacked on to literary prizes


 

Macleans.ca has asked its leading bloggers, pundits and critics to weigh in with what they’d like to see in 2012—in politics, television, film, books, wherever. The wish lists will run throughout the month of December and will be archived at macleans.ca/wishlist.

(1) According to journalistic adage, it takes three to make a trend, but there’s one trainee trend that ought to be nipped after two. In 201,1 two big-name authors released big-time follow-ups to the works of even bigger, but long dead, writers. P.D. James, now 91 but still smarter than most of us, wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, featuring most of the cast of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (and a handful of other Austen characters), while Anthony Horowitz channeled Arthur Conan Doyle and the gaslit world of Sherlock Holmes right through The House of Silk. Both living writers produced admirably—quality isn’t the problem here, rather it’s the unlikelihood anyone else will do as well. That goes for James and Horowitz too, as the latter is well aware. “I wouldn’t want to be that guy,” he allows, “the one about whom people say, ‘He wrote another of those too, but it wasn’t as good.’”

(2) Back in 1944 Raymond Chandler famously wished for more of the sort of (fictional) murderers who “commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Unlike the upper-crust English killers Chandler was complaining about, the super-smart, super-sick psycho-killers of the Scandinavian wave have their reasons—generally a combination of personal psychopathy and more generalized social evils linked to old-school Nazis, neo-Nazis or colonial evils—but really, are there no more bank robbers or other villains with rational motives? Could we have some ordinary criminals?

(3) This has been the year of—word of surpassing ugliness—“readability” in literary award lists (Patrick deWitt says thank you), and some people aren’t happy. A real prize-winning novel should be challenging and difficult, should push the boundaries of form and language, should—in Jeanette Winterson’s phrase—“expand my capacity to think and to feel.” To which the only proper response, in proper lit-crit terminology, is: ah, put a sock in it. If ordinary readers are perhaps too inclined to consider such a novel as a fusion of exquisite language and utter incomprehensibility, the professionals are far too fond of dismissing anything readable as unworthy for that very reason. They should recall that, back in Shakespeare’s time, Hamlet was a popular hit. Bring on the readability.

(4) On the other hand, I’d venture (with trepidation) that Winterson and I are on the same page regarding populist add-ons to the literary prizes. Having readers vote on their favourites is a bad idea, and risks what the awards have going for them: the imprimatur of pure, I-am-qualified-to-tell-you elitism. The Booker et al. are not Dancing With the Stars. Enough with the Giller gimmicks, please.


 
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My wish list: Brian Bethune on books

  1. Regarding point number 2, you’re not reading the proper books. Take a look at John McFetridge, author of Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Swap. No one else portrays Toronto as he does, with real, ordinary criminals doing just what you’d expect of them. More than one literary reviewer has praised him lavishly. An new one publishes in February, so it looks like you’ll get what you want in the new year.

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