No prizes for the video generation

Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize
Photo: Graeme Bulcraig
Another night, another champagne fuelled soiree. Sheesh, it’s a tough life in the arts world. But actually getting up close to the miracle of blow drying that is Melvyn Bragg’s hair is worth all the hangovers. If only I could mousse like that.

Notwithstanding the mine of styling tips that is Arts God Melvyn, the main reason for the evening of drunken debauchery last week was in fact to announce the winner of the sometimes controversial but inevitably, like most literary prizes, over hyped, Booker Prize 1997.

Now unless you’ve been polishing the walls of your lead-lined bunker for the last few weeks and have managed to avoid the actual purchase of anything on your reading list, you will be aware that the publishing world has been busy hyping the titles which make up the shortlist in the hope that those wot fink litrachure is for vem poncy types will take a tentative dip in the shark-infested waters of the more intellectual end of the market.

The Booker is one of those gloriously English institutions; blissfully hypocritical in its alleged attempt to unite the highbrow with the Jilly Cooper lovers while secure in the fact that the literary battlements stand good and solid against any who seek to infiltrate the charmed circle. But in the meantime, they’ll happily throw a few ink-stained crumbs to the literature-starved populace, and so here we have the Booker in all its glory, perhaps the prize that is guaranteed to shift more copies than any other.

You would be forgiven for thinking that students would make up a large percentage of those shelling out for the books, what with our natural interest in being learned and well read and the rest of it.

But apparently not - in a rare outburst, Gore Vidal, Booker judge, novelist and essayist,set about trashing our hard working reputation with one hefty stroke: students? Reading novels? Good heavens, no - they’re far too busy watching that appalling silver screen or downloading pictures of loose young creatures with a rare allergy to clothes from this newfangled Net. Apparently students (at least our American counterparts) are happy to have a heated debate about the latest film but care little for the delights of the novel; the competition from film, video and television is just too strong.

Former Harvard lecturer Vidal’s gloomy views, put forward in a pre-judging discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg, came in for attack from the other judges - academic Lisa Jardine pointed out that “You only have to go on the tube in the morning and you’ll see people reading real novels”.

Frankly Vidal’s comments seemed more like generation-bashing. Of course film and television play a large part in our lives; but I don’t see Dillons going out of business to be replaced by a video store anytime soon.Think about your favourite novel - from Mansfield Park to Naked Lunch, the intimacy of getting lost in the writer’s world is a totally different experience to sitting in a cinema absorbing sounds and images, which is not to say that the latter is inferior.

Salman Rushdie commented that people “still expect novels to shape their lives”: read The Unbearable Lightness of Being or On The Road and see what he means.

Christina Patrick

Arts Index

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