Wednesday 13 October 2010


Howard Jacobson has won the Booker! Last year Hilary Mantel, this year Jacobson - it's beginning to look as if the Booker might have become a meaningful prize again. Or so I thought, anyway, until I heard that The Finkler Question only won by a whisker from Peter Carey's latest unreadable slab. Oh well.
Finkler is being described as the first comic novel to win the Booker. Is it really? Surely J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur is a comic novel, or at least there's plenty in it to smile at - as there is in Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore, and Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils... But yes, Booker has been very much a prize for the big, earnest, humourless, 'ambitious' kind of novel, not for anything that might be taken as comic fiction. Which is odd, as the most vigorous tradition in English fiction is surely a comic one, from Fielding, Smollett and Sterne to Wodehouse and Waugh and even Amis pere et fils (before they discovered 'seriousness'), by way of Peacock, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Meredith and the greatest and most English of them all, Dickens. Against that joyous, tumultuous stream, the sobersided tradition in English fiction - Richardson, George Eliot, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene?, the Booker-winning set - seems a thin, sour trickle. Why did 'seriousness' come to be valued above all else? Perhaps it's something to do with Leavis's baleful influence, or with a simple failure of the imagination, a suspicion that anything that makes the reader laugh or even smile must be somehow shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Oscar Wilde (representing an equally vigorous tradition of comic drama) remarked: 'Life is far too important to be taken seriously.'


  1. I think there's a lot to be said for that argument that 'serious' fiction is primarily an American genre. Brits don't do sweeping and epic well these days. I've just read Beryl Bainbridge's Sam Johnson novel 'According to Queeney': brilliant and profound but also short and funny.

    Disagree with you on Carey though, I've loved all his stuff.

  2. Couldn't get on with According to Queenie at all Brit. Didn't finish it even though it's very short. There wasn't enough going on for me.

    I think a comparison of the critical regard shown to Greene versus Burgess is interesting. I'm sure it's because the latter likes word games and jokes and wears his Catholicism and politics relatively lightly that he fares a lot worse.

  3. Really? I thought something remarkable happened on just about every page...and then a few pages later you discover that that something was in fact something else.

  4. I'm with Brit on According to Queenie - loved it. Beryl B was a career non-winner of the Booker of course. If she'd just padded her novels out to 500 pages, sent her characters off to remote parts of the world and chucked in some magic realism, she'd have been home and dry.

  5. I concur with Brit on Peter Carey - not only do I love his books, but I find lots of them have exceedingly funny bits in too.

    Regarding the Booker, there's a humerous tone in last year's White Tiger, and lets not forget Vernon God Little too. And Roddy Doyles Paddy Clarke Hahaha has its funny bits

    Jacobson's 'Redback', a supposedly 'comic' novel, is one of the worst books I have ever read

  6. Oh yes Jacobson's more of a Good Thing than a good novelist (from what I've read of him, he needs heavy editing, cutting by at least a third - but then I find that with most contemporary fiction). He's done some terrific stuff on TV - very good on God, tho he somehow manages to retain his unbelief.