Sunday, November 13, 2005


This is likely old news for you guys who follow publishing awards, but I just came across it the other day while looking for a book ref.

After winning the $88,000.00 Booker Prize, novelist John Banville's The Sea was slammed by critics and evidently even some of the judges as unworthy of the blue ribbon. In follow-up interviews, Banville has been delighted by the controversy and indicated that it was high time that a work of art (his book) won. According to Banville, "some books are art, and some are not" and his criterion is, "Did it have to be written?"

Writers generally don't make a lot of money, so I'm glad John won and all. Writers also come with supersized egos, so him viewing his own stuff as a work of art doesn't bother me. What I have a serious problem with is a guy who has such good fortune turning around and snotting on the rest of us.

Art is not one-Booker-Prize-fits-all.

I don't think I'm eligible for the Booker, and I seriously doubt my books will ever be described as works of art. I'd preforate an ulcer if I was or they were. But if Banville walked up to me, pointed to my backlist and asked, Did they have to be written? then I'd need a few questions of my own to be answered first:

Should my imagination thrive?
Does my love of story-telling have to be expressed?
Do I have to channel my energy into something productive?
Must I try to achieve personal success?
Should my desire to improve as a storyteller be permitted?
Am I to have a chance, the same chance as anyone who loves to write, to pursue avenues that allow me to make a living from it and share my stories with others?

John can't answer those questions. As artistic and rich as he may be, he's not entitled to tell me what I can or cannot do, what I may or may not write, and whether or not what I write has deserves to be written. You can't, either. Only I can decide that.

As for art, no one can decide what that is. It's too personal. It changes. Everyone has their own idea of what it is. John Banville's concept of a work of art may be the equivalent of word-valium to me. I think the art of the novel is something a writer never achieves or finishes; we're forever trying to perfect it.

You probably wrote something today. You may feel it's gold or trash, but you wrote it. Did it have to be written? I don't know, only you do. Do I hope you'll write something tomorrow? See post title.


  1. Anonymous3:30 AM

    Does *any* book have to be written? For that matter, any art at all? I find it hard to believe Kandinsky's paintings *had* to be painted, or that Shakespeare's plays *had* to be produced. If I used that as my criterion for producing art, I'd never do a thing.

  2. Anonymous4:50 AM

    I think I'm in love with you, PBW.

  3. $88,000 only goes so far, he still has to continue to sell his works of art to the people who really count. The readers.

  4. Anonymous8:12 AM

    I don't know, I consider my books works of art. And, yes, most of them are genre, not literary.

  5. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Define "have to". It's interesting how the literary types lose their postmodernist relativism when it comes to making sweeping statements about art.

    A book doesn't "have to" do anything, let alone exist. A writer, however, may be subject to certain imperatives. The next question is where do these imperatives come from?

    If Booker-Guy "had to write" his book, then why? Who was making him write it? The answer is, himself - his own sense of mission and importance.

    So what he really means is: "I only write stuff which pleases me."

    This doesn't make him any different from most other successful writers.

    But really, if somebody asked me "Did your book have to be written?" I'd say, "##### off and come back to me when you can frame that question in the active voice."

  6. Anonymous9:17 AM

    Did the book touch another person in a positive way? And by positive I mean brightened their darkest day a bit, made them think, made them move out of their normal thought patterns for even a second, made them laugh or just enjoy a few minutes away from the normal life and so on. Then yes, the book needed to be written.

  7. zornhau said:

    "But really, if somebody asked me "Did your book have to be written?" I'd say, "##### off and come back to me when you can frame that question in the active voice."

    I read that and spewed tea. Great come back.

  8. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Whoo Hooo! I say YES to!

    And, as someone whose read your books, YES, you needed to write them. I needed to read them. They serve a purpose. Maybe the purpose isn't to make people think or philosophize, but to give us an escape from thinking too much!!

    This is a needed thing!

  9. Anonymous11:38 AM

    All novels have to be written, otherwise nobody would go through what we have to go through to write them.

    Weirdly, a Booker Prize always sounds to me as if a Hooker and a Book got together and produced a beautiful much-loved child.

  10. From the second link (re. McEwans book, "Saturday"): I just felt he was offering a completely spurious and unbelievable version of life. His protagonist was still in love with his wife after all those years, can never have been unfaithful to her; both his children loved each other. It's just not life as we know it.

    Well, Mr. Banville, too bad if you have cheated on your wife, your marriage is a mess and your kids don't talk with each other. My parents knew each other since 1948 and were in love until my mother left us a few weeks ago, and in some way they still are. I have a good relationship with my brother (it's my sis in law I have issues with) - life can be like that.

    I'm not supposed to have fun.

    Another piece of nonsense. If you don't, why do you write at all? Ok, there are days in a writer's life where words won't flow and the plot developed a big fat hole and you thinks your stuff is crap, but there are other days where things fall into place, you find good words and writing IS fun.

    But wait, I write historical battle and intrigue stuff, not deep, meaningful stuff covered in verbose prose. Books that don't need to be written, and therefore I'm allowed to have fun. ;-)

  11. I get so tired of the 'art' card, the implication that some books are more worthy than others (time will tell, Mr. Banville), that only authors who suffer or who read poems about misanthropic suicides to beret-wearing fops in grubby cafes in the university district have any right to claim the title 'writer'.

    As for claiming that such books have to be written: bullshit. It's just more of the hip-deep colon-content that pervades the whole art n' literature scene, the nasty snobbishness that says that you have to be educated to be able to appreciate either, and that a book that has impossible things in it is ok if it is 'magical realism', but trash if it is 'fantasy'.

    Bah. There's something about the pretentious literary set that brings out the curmudgeon in me. Maybe it's that I don't like it when people wave their expensive educations around. It's gauche, like the guy at work who looks down at people if they have an old cell phone.

  12. I'm reminded of the literary writer who wrote a diatribe against NaNoWriMo.

  13. But really, if somebody asked me "Did your book have to be written?" I'd say, "##### off and come back to me when you can frame that question in the active voice." Too excellent!

    These kinds of people make me sneer. I'm sorry, but I get an image of the great comic genius Kenneth Williams, a finger tapping his cheek staring at a blank wall, next to a painting and saying to an adoring crowd, "Yes, well, I must say, it speaks to me, simply speaks to me." Followed by rousing applause.

    The kinds of comments that Banville has come up with 'speaks to me' too: filled with bloated self-importance and farting nonsense.

    I write because I need to. People read because they want to. What more justification do you require?


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