A storm has been rocking the literary world over the past week as a result of Howard Davies’s speech at the Booker prize ceremony. Davies, this year’s chair of judges, used his speech to attack book reviewers and literary editors for lauding too many unworthy books and ignoring those of real quality. Not surprisingly, literary hacks went on the attack. The Observer‘s Robert McCrum described Davies’s speech as “one of the most embarassing Booker speeches in living memory,” while Nicholas Lezard on the Guardian‘s blog dismissed it on the grounds that Davies, a glorified bean counter, couldn’t possibly understand how the literary world works: “He probably took one look at all the monkey-suited guests at the tables in front of him and imagined he saw a large, self-congratulatory clique.”
I have some sympathy for what Davies said. He is basically right: a lot of very mediocre books get lavishly praised by reviewers. No doubt this has something to do, as Davies implied, with the incestuous nature of the literary world, with mutual back-scratching and so on. But I think the larger, and more interesting, problem has to do with standards. Standards are a prerequisite for any critical judgement. In order to declare something good, or bad, you have to have in your head some point of comparison—some ideal marker—against which the verdict “good” or “bad” applies. What, I wonder, is the standard most contemporary novel reviewers adopt? Of course, in an ideal world, it would be that of the classics. The new McEwan would be set against Henry James, and judged accordingly. But of course, that’s not the way it works. In most cases the new McEwan is set against, well, the last McEwan —or at best the new Philip Roth.
That’s the way the game works—and, I suspect, is the way it always has. As Lezard pointed out in his blog, George Orwell was complaining about the necessity of praising trash in his 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer.” And that, really, is the way it has to be, because if every book reviewer adopted the highest possible standards, then every novel bar only the very occasional exception would be trashed and reviewing would become a pointless exercise.
I suspect this is what outsiders like Davies often don’t get. They probably don’t read a great deal of contemporary fiction (except when they’re judging the Booker)…