Call this sacrilege if you like, but I momentarily forgot that Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending won the 2011 Booker. When I cracked the book open on the train this morning, I vaguely recalled that it had been nominated – and even made it to the ranks of shortlist perhaps – but seeing that the cover read ‘Winner of the Something or Other Prize’ instead (some say Costa Award, some say David Cohen Prize), I assumed it hadn’t done well. I certainly didn’t recall the whole uproar about readability, because that was something distant (and largely irrelevant to me) that had happened while I was away on my travels through China. Jeanette Winterson makes a fair point in The Guardian:
The most unreadable books I have read recently were Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I did try to read Stella Rimington’s own spy series but instead I began to wonder if we would choose an enthusiastic member of a painting-by-numbers club to chair the Turner prize?
It’s unfortunate that Stella Rimington’s careless and now infamous remarks on Ulysses and ‘readability’ have overshadowed what is a fine and nuanced work of literature. And it infers more about the priggish snobbery of the literary community at large than it does about Barnes’ novel itself, by which I mean that some people seem to object to the selection of The Sense of an Ending because they question Rimington as a Booker Panel judge.
I’m far from happy myself that an ex-M15 Director cum author of thrillers is spouting misguided nonsense about the purpose and value of literature to the general public. And here, I’m aware that I’m coming dangerously close to sounding snobbish myself, but some things are sacred. Online fan fiction and self-published novels should stay online, and stay self-published. We do not need literature to become a ‘kind of printed television’, as Winterson says, nor do we need any repeats of the horror that was Fifty Shades of Grey. But this shouldn’t impinge on our judgement of Barnes’ writing at all. The Booker Prize was founded – and continues to exist today – to ‘increase the reading of quality fiction’. Is Barnes’ novel a work of quality? Yes, I think so.
The Sense of an Ending is undeniably a ‘crackling good read’, and it does ‘zip along’ (Rimington’s words). Are these crimes? Certainly not. The readability v good literature relationship is assymetrical, in that a good work of literature can be readable. It does not, by any means, have to be complicated and difficult and profound. It can, by all means, be comical or filled with suspense or be written in ‘accessible language’ (which is what I am assuming Rimington means by ‘readable’). However. However, not all readable novels are good works of literature. Then which category does Barnes’ novel fit into? Not the latter! And it’s as simple as that, end of discussion. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a worthy recipient of the Booker Prize.
For those of you who haven’t yet read it, I found it reminiscent of Julia Leigh’s Disquiet, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and even saw tints of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in it. I don’t mean to do Barnes a disservice by comparing him to other writers, just give you all a feel of what the novel is like – Eerie and dark in some places, a coming of age story narrated in that ever self-conscious, cool and unrevealing British veneer. Written from first sentence to last in a pared back voice (rarely elegant, but minimalistic nonetheless), with an ending that leaves the reader shocked and disoriented.