He didn't make the Booker longlist because he disdains literary prizes, but John le Carré remains one of the most under-rated of postwar British writersby Jason Cowley / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Harris moans, le Carré sings
Robert Harris may be one of Britain’s best rewarded popular novelists, but he remains a victim of literary snobbery, or so he thinks. Interviewed recently in the Observer, he complained that the kind of novels shortlisted for the Booker prize were as much works of genre as any other. Harris is considered to be a genre writer: a writer of the airport thriller and historical saga. As such, he is never in contention for the main prizes, and his latest novel, Imperium, was predictably not among the 19 titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist—although no one complained about this.
Elsewhere, there was much chatter about those writers who had been overlooked, unfairly or otherwise. Why no Ballard or Boyd? it was asked when the longlist was announced in mid-August. What about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, the 900-page experimental crime novel set in Mumbai for which Faber, improbably, paid more than £200,000, or Gautam Malkani’s debut Londonstani, written entirely in street vernacular, and for which 4th Estate paid as much as £300,000?
Another writer missing from the longlist was John le Carré, whose new novel, The Mission Song, has just been published. What is not widely known is that le Carré has long refused to allow his novels to be entered for literary prizes. Is this because he fears rejection? More likely it’s that the remarkable success of his early thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) long ago freed him to live and work exactly as he wishes, without the need to play the literary game: the readings and festivals, the signings and award ceremonies.
Yet he remains one of the most consistently underrated of all postwar British writers. Le Carré’s high-profile disparagers, who include Salman Rushdie and the critic James Wood, like to portray him as a mere baggage-handler of literature. Wood, reviewing Absolute Friends (2003) in the New Republic, spent more than 5,000 words arguing that le Carré was not a “literary novelist,” as if anyone should care about such classifications.
Le Carré is certainly a writer more interested in character, plot and agency than in the literary high style. His prose is never charged. But from the beginning, he had an urgent subject—the cold war—and a compelling preoccupation—secrecy. What Wood neglected to consider was how well le Carré documented the absurdities of the cold war and…