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What Does ‘Readable’ Mean?

22 October, 2011

The annual Man Booker Prize for literature, with its £50,000 prize, often elicits not only discussion but controversy—about the judges, the long list, the short list, the overall selection process, and the winner.

This year, Julian Barnes won with his 150-page novel, The Sense of an Ending. Dame Stella Rimington, chair of this year’s  judging panel—and former director-general of MI5—described it as ‘exquisitely written, subtly plotted.’ Gaby Wood, panellist and the British Daily Telegraph’s head of books, said it was technically ‘one of the most masterful things I’ve ever read.’

This year’s controversy was not about the winner but the issue of readability. Criticism started when the panel picked a shortlist that did not include well-known writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ali Smith, and Edward St Aubyn. Barnes was the only major writer to make the shortlist and also the only writer to have been previously shortlisted.

This change was interpreted by some critics the result of the panel’s concern for readability. Rimington said the panel favoured readable books, which she describes as those people will actually read, not simply admire. Another judge, Chris Mullin—author, journalist, and ex-politician—said people told him they hoped ‘something readable’ would be chosen this year.

Mullin added fat to the readability fire when he said that for a novel to be considered worthy of the prize, it needed to ‘zip along’. A critic responded that novels were in danger of being rejected if they used experimental techniques or other elements that characterise  ‘non-zipalongability.’ Last year’s panel chair for the prize accused this year’s judges of creating a false distinction between ‘high end’ and ‘readable’ literature.

Mullin’s view of the controversy surrounding the shortlist is that the problem is the ‘London literati’, who are upset because they were not able to ‘call the shots’ about which  authors to include. The panel chose the shortlist by assessing each book’s quality, not its author’s literary reputation.

Whether it was the controversy or the creation of a ‘readable’ Man Booker shortlist this year, booksellers reported record sales of the shortlisted books.

Part of the problem in this controversy is that people have different ideas of what the term readable means. Mullins thinks critics equate readability with ‘dumbing down’. Rimington does not define a readable book as one that is simple to read. She found  Barnes’s novel ‘incredibly concentrated’ and suggested that re-reading it would help readers discover ‘new depths’ in the story. Barnes believes ‘most great books are readable.’

Part of the problem is that the term readability is too broad for literature, while also being a specific term in text analysis, a field I worked in for many years. Many countries—including Australia, Great Britain and the USA—have or had readability guidelines for government documents, and many businesses have adopted these. Readability here refers mainly to material created for consumers, for example, information about your car insurance, medical prescription and your house loan. The aim  is to help readers comprehend, so elements of  ‘plain English’ is used: short and simple vocabulary, sentences, and paragraphs, plus removing information readers do not need.

We cannot apply these readability elements to literature. Literature can inform but a major part of its value is in bringing readers pleasure—for example, the enjoyment of reading elegant prose, being kept in suspense, and bonding with characters and the issues they face. Similar to going to a popular or artistic movie, you read literature not just to ‘learn’ something, but to enjoy and perhaps be moved in some way as well. A good, readable book does not have ‘dumbed down’ writing. What it does have is a quality that gets me so completely into a world, character or  situation that the story feels real and compelling.

The opposite is what writer and educator Barbara Turner-Vesselago calls gray writing. She says that any story, be it fiction, memoir or whatever, needs a ‘strong emotional pull’ to grab readers’ attention.  Gray writing, which she says is more often found in ‘cerebral literature’ lacks this impact.

I agree. I love short stories and novels that are utterly engaging. Others leave me cold because conflict, momentum or change is absent. I sometimes suspect that some of these works were created by writers jotting down what they heard and saw while at a bar, cafe, party, then passing it off as a trendy—but oh so gray— effort.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 October, 2011 8:31 pm

    It’s interesting that the Man Booker gets so much more press than other literary prizes. The publicity is a large part of its value and also could be what pressures the judges to justify their selection so fiercely.

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    • 23 October, 2011 10:23 am

      You’re right, compared with other major prizes, this one always grabs the headlines. One year the issue was whether the winning book was legitimately a novel. The criticism was that it was a novella.

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  2. 22 October, 2011 8:13 pm

    I agree that readability means different things to different people, we all have different backgrounds, different vocabularies etc.

    I have to say that I have been disappointed by many of the Booker nominated books I’ve read in the past, finding many of them quite ‘gray’

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    • 23 October, 2011 10:25 am

      I like Barbara’ description of ‘gray’, I suppose because some of the arty books, Man Booker selected and others, remind me of porridge–thick and not that interesting. (I’ve never converted my palate to the Australian love of porridge.)

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