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The Editor's View December 05


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Booker winner will write under a different name


IF YOU had won the Booker prize and your name had been plucked from relative obscurity to national prominence what is the last thing you would do? Answer: change it.

But that is what John Banville has done after his novel The Sea picked up the £50,000 award and massive publicity.

He is now going to be known as Benjamin Black, which, although neatly alliterative, is deemed more suitable to genre fiction rather than the aristocratic-sounding, literary appropriate Banville. The change of name goes with a change of genre. He is going to write a couple of literary thrillers. Good for Black, aka Banville.

This nonsense really defines the stupidity of literary prize giving: the myopic assumption that works of literature cannot be considered if they have popular appeal. It is so stupid that one hesitates to point out the merit of such authors as John le Carré, Robert Graves, John Fowles, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

You will have your own favourites.

I only hope that Banville’s thrillers will be more entertaining than The Sea which is dreary beyond belief. It’s not as bad as last year’s winner by Alan Hollingsworth, The Line of Beauty, but it is far from good.

Watching the BBC telecast of the Man Booker prize award you could almost hear a paper clip drop – or was it Kirsty Wark’s jaw – as the winner was announced.

Kirsty, of the corncrake voice, had spent ten minutes interviewing three literary editors of national newspapers on the chances and merits of Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith with nary a mention of the other three authors short-listed.

Invited to forecast the winner, none stepped outside these three names – and even then tried to hedge their bets.

Banville, who has been writing since 1970, was previously short-listed in 1989 when he was beaten by Ishiguro and The Sea is his fourteenth book.

Born in Wexford (of opera festival fame) in 1945, he worked as a sub-editor (hard to believe when you read his books) and was at one time literary editor of the excellent Irish Times.

One of Banville’s colleague at the Irish Times said in a review that Banville was trying to avoid stereotypical Irish topics and it is that "which makes him so recognisably an Irish writer."

I may be dense but that sounds suspiciously like a touch of Irish blarney. I am well aware that we gave the Irish the English language and they have taught us to use it. In fact, such disparate figures as Swift and Brendan Behan, Christy Brown and James Joyce have thrilled millions with their talent. If they reflect the pinnacles of achievement Banville is toiling in the foothills.

Banville is not only an author, but a reviewer, and criticized one of his rivals, Ian McEwan, in a piece in the New York Review of Books, calling his latest effort a dismayingly bad book.

So will slugger Banville get similar treatment for his next work? It would be interesting to read McEwan on The Sea.

The book features an elderly art historian Max Morden, (loves a bit of alliteration does Banville/Black) who after losing his wife to cancer returns to an Irish seaside resort where he holidayed in his youth.

He encountered the Grace family, particularly twins Myles and Chloe, and a strange relationship developed.

There is a dark atmosphere about The Sea, which clearly appealed to the chairman of the judges, Professor John Sutherland who gave it his casting vote.

On the quality of the writing he said: "You feel you are in the presence of a virtuoso. In his hands language is an instrument."

Reading an essay by Sutherland on university education in this country I could not help but be impressed by his logic and the fluency of his argument. So perhaps I am wrong and he is right about The Sea.

Nevertheless, looking back over the years of the Booker winners I have the feeling that recently the judges now feel they must first look for something different, and if possible, obscure, and certainly in the "literary loop."

I am not against something different, provided it’s as good as Yan Martell’s allegorical winner in 2002, The Life of Pi.

It is also interesting to see who has been short-listed over the years, but not awarded a prize: Jim Crace, William Trevor, David Lodge and Julian Rathbone. Perhaps they are too entertaining.

The Sea by John Banville (ISBN:0-330-48328-5) is published by Picador and available from most bookstores priced £16.99.

AFTER product placement comes name placement.

An organization promoting Freedom of Expression in the United States has just raised $90,000 on eBay offering lucky bidders the chance to name a character in the next novel penned by famous authors, including John Grisham and Stephen King.

One lady paid $25,100 to get her brother’s name, Ray Huizenga in King’s next novel.

Barbara Mellinger paid $12,100 to be a character portrayed in a good light in the next John Grisham.

This seems to offer endless possibilities.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2005. Reproduced from the December-Januray edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.