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A plague on both your houses: should a book be well written, or a good read?

I’ve given this blog a kick to wake it from its slumber, so that I can rant a little: Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song…

There’s been a debate, here in the UK, sparked by The Booker prize. It’s a literary prize for the year’s best novel.

It’s been controversial this year, even more so than normal, because the judges have been saying they wanted to reward books that were readable. That ‘zip along,’ as one of the judges put it.

The literary elite have come over all pompous and offended. The self-appointed literati seem to think novels need to be slow and ponderous and incomprehensible in order to be any good.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, a fair number of people, including quite a few who actually buy and read books, have been pointing out that it is, sometimes, an entirely good thing that a novel has a coherent narrative.

Not so, say the literati. A work of ‘literature’ should have higher ambitions than that. And of course, they do have a point. We wouldn’t want all the bookshops to be filled with clones of James Patterson and Jeffrey Archer, now would we?

So who’s right? Should we reward and hail the novels that contain literary ambition, which set out to chart new territory and stretch the art form? Or the ones that represent a damn good read?

I think you know the answer. Drum roll please. As readers, what we crave and desire and want and deserve and demand is….


Both goddamn you. Both, you silly little intellectuals in your ivory towers. Both, you publishing apparatchicks with your expense account lunches and your ridiculous shoes.

Why can’t we have novels that are well written and a good read? A good story, characters who come alive on the page, suspense, interest. Combine that with a strong theme, something to say about the human condition, imaginative use of language, care and control over every word on the page. Art and story combined. That would make for a terrific novel.

Is it really too much to ask?



Photo by h.koppdelaney.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joe December 14, 2011, 7:11 pm

    No it is not too much to ask that a book be both entertaining and smart. If it’s not entertaining, then not enough people will read it for your ideas to make a difference, and if it isn’t smart then after that first thrill nobody will read it again and it’ll be forgotten in a generation.

  • M. S. Spencer December 14, 2011, 9:01 pm

    First words that popped out when I read the tweet about your blog was Why not both? Duh! Maybe the debate is actually between style and narrative–literati like a gripping syntax & readers want a gripping story. To me, “well written” means grammatically correct, good sentence structure, and zero misspellings. Oh, also fluidity, originality, and variety in the prose. Literati may only want something newfangled.

  • spray parks December 27, 2011, 12:35 pm

    A book should be written in a manner with simple n attractive words, equally enjoyable by a reader and a writer.