The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Monday links

Posted on: October 22, 2007

Here’s a few links to keep you busy while I rustle up another Paradise Lost post.

Dorothy pointed me to a Guardian article in which a Booker judge always writes about the judging process. I cannot overemphasize my horror at what experienced, sophisticated, educated, well-learned readers actually considered as a judging model.

It may seem banal to relate the story of these stages, much of which will be familiar to seasoned Booker observers. I want to stress that everything was always up for grabs – right to the end. Everything was contingent. Even the method by which the books were to be assessed. A few days before the shortlist meeting we had gathered in a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, to discuss this issue. Some judges wanted to apply comparative principles across the range of books; others wanted to voice their subjective preferences novel by novel.

The comparative principles, out of which it might be hoped measures of objectivity could be drawn, were not very sophisticated. It was just a simple taxonomy including the following: plot and structure; theme; language, tone and style; characterisation; impact and readability. But even these basic foundations to judging a novel could not be adequately established.

I know they didn’t use it, thank goodness, but I’m not sure how on earth it could have occurred to any of them as a good idea at the time. That it could have even been suggested. It’s a bloody literary prize for adults not an ‘O’ level exam. Aren’t you supposed to be looking for exciting, bowl me over, when has this been done before books? How can you even bring that attitude in the first place when you have to consult your Flesch-Kincaide Readability manual? If I were at that table I think I would have grabbed my coffee and run away in horror. I assume that if Mulligan Stew by Sorrentino could qualify, and they read maybe one or three pages, they would have stabbed it with a Morgul Blade of mediocrity. (I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings.)

American readers, were you aware of middle-grade fiction as a distinct “genre” from children’s literature and young adult? Besides reading levels maybe. Niall of Torque Control posted last week about the reactions to a review by Paul Kincaide: he is accused of not knowing the audience of the book, nor being familiar with the area of “middle-grade” fiction because he’s British, “middle-grade” being an American grade system. Keep in mind that the reviewer asserts that he reads his YA and knows his stuff but, well, YA isn’t “middle-grade” so it doesn’t count, he’s missing context. All of which sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me, but what do I know? The line between children’s literature and young adult is blurry enough as it is, and now we’re being told that reading enough of the latter isn’t enough to properly review books aimed at kids aged 8-12 ( I guess)? If anyone’s willing to let me know how this is at all comparable to a realist fan tackling a fantasy book let me have it in comments.

After you get that off your chest you can sample an exhibition of France’s moral superiority to the USA here, first seen at Laila Lalami who makes another pertinent point:

One thing Kimmelman could have pointed out is that the French name for the center is: Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, which, in a very literal translation, means simply “National City of the History of Immigration,” and so the word cité is meant to suggest republican notions of unity, and of a single, indivisible, unhyphenated French identity. But cité is also the colloquial word in French for the suburbs around the big cities where immigrants live. This is a bit like building a museum for Mexican-Americans and calling it the “barrio museum.” And the worst part of it is: I don’t even think French officials realize the ambiguity.

Then you may partake in more of Western Europe’s self-delusion here.

And this should bring back a smile on your face. When I first read it took me a while to realise what they were referring to. What? “Alternative literature?” I thought to myself. Like Coldplay and top 40 stations or–oh, like gay lit? But why should Amazon cordon them off that way, what about all the other minor–OOOOH, you mean indie writers and stuff. Pass. (What can I say, I’m slow? I first saw this announcement on a blog of indeterminate nature, so I saw no immediate “underground” writerly clues.)

Edit: I’m not sure what kind of mood I’m in today but I discovered that the acclaimed New York Review of Books reviewed the latest Alice Sebold book in the comments of Dan Green’s aggrieved post on newspaper book pages, and am still laughing 3 minutes later.


9 Responses to "Monday links"

Flesch-Kincaide Readability manual? Oh, you’re making me laugh. 🙂

Whatever the name of the mood… or what you took to get on it… More! More!

… and give me some too!

I wrote a similar, but much too sober and reasonable response to that “alternative” Amazon thing on Metataxu–where I ran across it.

I’ve never heard of ‘middle grade’ lit before. Weird…

That alternative lit thing is just hilarious….’alt lit’ is fun to say though. 😀

well maybe they should just come up with a computer program to do all the judging, plug in the plot points and other “criteria” and just output the winner … wouldn’t that work even easier? sheesh.

Dorothy well, I couldn’t think of what else they could use if they want to be “objective”. Silly Booker people.

Jacob ha! I think it was my light breakfast. I saw your comment on Metaxu and actually thought it wasn’t a bad idea at all.

Eva I’m glad I’m not the only one! Teachers might know about it, I figure, but what does that have to do with reviews?

‘Alit-lit’ is kindof fun to say. Hehe.

Verbivore and then we wouldn’t need another lame Guardian article afterwards! Let’s put that one in the suggestion box.

Did you see the New York Times Book Review article about the Sebold book? I can’t stand Sebold, but I was cringing for her after that review. It actually compared her unfavorably to Danielle Steel. And it said that reading Sebold should be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And more!

Ouch! The comparison of her book to Danielle Steel is kinda funny, but that bit about mental disorders seems a trifle horrid of the reviewer. Something tells me Kakutani might have written that one. 😉 (Although knowing the Times they probably had the book reviewed a million times.)

I’m with you over the ‘middle-grade’/ young adults issue – bullshit. Apart from anything else we do know about ‘middle-grade’ in the UK. There are very few now left but we have run a system of First, Middle and High schools and we still train teachers specifically to work with 9-13 year olds; I know, I was so trained and have spent twenty years training others. But that is actually pretty much irrelevant. You can’t categorise books that precisely as any teacher knows. I have had 11yr olds who were still engaged by Thomas the Tank Engine and 9yr olds reading (and enjoying) Gone With The Wind. You go with what they want to read and be ready to jump in with suggestions that you think will keep them reading while widening their experience at the same time. The most important qualification is that you are a reader yourself and know from experience what turns a good book into an excellent one regardless of who the publishers decided to market it to. I’ll come down off my soap-box now.

I made that point as well in the comments on Niall’s blog. “Middle-grade” or not, kids are the same age in England as in America, so what’s the big deal? I really don’t think it’s a genre and some people are living on some tiny “middle-grade fiction is genre” island.

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