Scroll down for Peter Stothard's reviews of this year's Booker Prize shortlist.
After last year’s Booker brouhaha about readable books that “zip along”, some may have seen the inclusion of Downton Abbey heart-throb Dan Stevens on the judges’ panel in 2012 as further evidence that the literary award is dumbing down.
Not this year’s chairman, Sir Peter Stothard. “Dan was reckoned as a very good student and scholar at Cambridge [where he read English],” demurs the donnish Stothard. “So although he’s also a very fine actor and has become extraordinarily famous, it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s a very learned man and a very astute critic.”
As editor of The Times Literary Supplement for almost a decade and The Times before that, and author of two acclaimed books with a third on the way, Sir Peter’s credentials are impeccable. And if that CV doesn’t silence the critics, his zero tolerance approach to zippy page-turners will.
“Storytelling is fine but it doesn’t require Man Booker judges to decide what people are going to enjoy taking on holiday and reading on the beach. What the Man Booker judges can do is apply traditional literary criticism and try to identify what people will still want to read in 20 years’ time. That was the aim of the Man Booker Prize and it’s important to hold on to it.”
“Books that are not immediately easy to read - the books that in the end will last, that reward you most - do increasingly require the Man Booker Prize judges to identify them so that people find the pleasure and reward of reading them. “
Traditional literary criticism is a dying discipline, Sir Peter fears. “There is a general trend - and it’s certainly very prevalent online - for replacing argued literary criticism that allows you to compare books, to put them in context, to analyse how they work. That kind of traditional criticism is very easily replaced by unargued opinion.”
Sir Peter may have reservations about shrill online blogs and five-starred book reviews, but he is a reluctant convert to the easily pocketable e-reader. It was perhaps inevitable given that Man Booker judges have a mere seven months to read 145 novels - enough to cause a landslide on any bedside table.
“I began the year as an e-book sceptic but I’ve come round. Not least because I discovered that the e-book discourages me from skipping over pages and encourages me to read more slowly - and we’re now re-reading the shortlisted books for the second, third and even fourth time before the prize-judging on 16 October.”
Unsurprisingly, Sir Peter has had little time to put his feet up in front of the TV lately - with one exception. “Since meeting Dan, I have watched Downton Abbey.” And? “And I was very pleased to see my friend doing his day job.”