Still bilious about the Booker

 

Literary Criticism: It's nearly as difficult, maintains John Sutherland, "to read a novel well as to write one well". As someone who does both - though I accept the "well" may be open to question - I maintain this is rubbish. And this handsome but rather hollow little book does nothing to convince us of its truth.

It begins, predictably enough, with Caxton, who invented printing. Asserting, persuasively, that the "codex" or book-form object will see off any screen-dependent version, Sutherland then closes in on the object itself and how to approach it. This should be done with a degree of knowingness. The blurb - in which the author generally has a hand - the cover, with its implicit definition of the genre to which the novel belongs - the copyright details, the title - its tendency to be deceptive for instance - are all scrutinised. So far, so - obvious? For anyone likely to read this book at least. Along the way sadly he shows himself to be only mildly exercised by the most dangerous aspect of publishing now - its capitulation to dumbing down and the manipulation of public taste.

"Framing fiction within the necessary time and culture settings is tricky and requires practice," he goes on. I fail to see what's so tricky. Any good novel will reveal implicitly and painlessly its "time and culture settings", assisted by our rather wonderful ability to intuit far more than we are told. It's like landing in a new country - we find we can absorb a great deal about its culture very fast. A novel is a parallel universe whose laws we learn as naturally as we do those of our own.

Turning to the actual content of novels, he limits himself, perhaps wisely, to generalities. He talks about the importance of first sentences, predictably citing the famous "Last night I went to Manderlay again" as probably unbeatable. He talks about "intertextuality", the reverberations in a novel of another or others. Zadie Smith explicitly does this with Howard's End in On Beauty, for example. John Banville does it implicitly with Ulysses in his opening to The Sea. This claim, made on the basis of descriptions of the sea by the two writers while ignoring the radical difference in tone between the two books, is not very convincing however.

It's only when the literary gossip starts, really, that the fun does. Prof Sutherland was chairman of the Man Booker Prize committee in 2005. The result was contentious and he is still mulling it over, and with some rancour, you can see. In fact you could say that for him the contemporary novel outside of the Man Booker Shortlist 2005 hardly exists.

It seems that from its rapturously received publication early in the year a novel called Saturday by Ian McEwan had, as far as the London literary village was concerned, the Man Booker Prize cheque already attached to it. Sutherland himself loved it and wrote one of those rapturous reviews. But Saturday was scuppered when one John Banville wrote a damning review in the New York Review of Books. "A dismayingly bad book," Banville wrote in his devastatingly effective review, "Self- satisfied . . . ridiculous..." London was in shock but it turned out to be a case of the emperor's new clothes. By Christmas, even Craig Raine (a poem of his is quoted in Saturday), though still spitting furiously, was rowing back. Saturday, he wrote in the TLS, was deprived of the Booker "by two things - envy and envy". However - "It isn't perfect but it has bravura evocations (perhaps a couple too many) of surgical operations that are unrivalled in fiction . . .". By then Saturday hadn't made the shortlist and The Sea had taken the prize - on Sutherland's casting vote, which was big of him since he had already tackled Banville in the NYRB about his none-too-close reading in Saturday of a bravura evocation of a game of squash.

But here he returns to the clearly painful topic. Might Banville, he asks, be alienated from the world of Saturday? From the world of a top London surgeon? As an Irishman who did not go to public school he may have "a disabling cultural blind spot" that stops him from getting "on top" of Saturday. For Sutherland, to get on top of a novel you should be "intimately knowledgeable" about the world in which it is set. All to be said in that case is that this requirement would make most of us, even Prof Sutherland, ineligible to comment on virtually any novel at all.

I myself am dismayed that Sutherland believes George Eliot's novels to be read only by "dutiful students and retired schoolteachers"; and that he chooses to read thrillers - even if they are "informational" thrillers - on long flights to LA. Every man to his own of course. But this man is an arbiter of literature. It's like finding Jamie Oliver munching on Big Macs.

The most reliable advice he offers comes from Marshall McLuhan. So how do you know whether you're going to like a book or not? Turn, said McLuhan, to page 69. I could quibble and say page 79. But yeah, turn to page 69.

Anne Haverty's novel, The Free And Easy (Chatto & Windus), was published earlier this year

How To Read A Novel By John Sutherland Profile Books, 263pp. £9.99