With readability the watchword for the Man Booker prize, it's unlikely any of the literary greats would even get on to the shortlist
Given that the Booker is at heart a speed-reading contest for judges – 100-odd novels to read in a couple of months – it is not surprising that those poor unfortunates faced with the task favour books that can be tackled in a few swift hours. Eighty books in and counting, who would want to be confronted with Finnegans Wake?
This is, you suppose, the point being made by the promoters of the rival Literature prize, smartly announced prior to the book world's big night out on Tuesday. The prizefight has been presented, entertainingly, in the usual terms – of highbrow versus lowbrow culture, of pompous literary elites against good, old-fashioned readers. The opposition should be a false one, but somewhere behind it is the apparently unarguable current belief that the writer's first duty is to provide the easiest possible experience for the reader.
Maybe it says something about our culture that it has become strangely unfashionable to suggest that great novels shouldn't only be a quick fix, another consumer experience, that they should make us work and reward us for our effort by staying with us, leaving a bit of intellectual and emotional residue.
In this sense, though, "readability" is a poor substitute for "writeability" – the craft of making sentences and paragraphs that take us to places we hadn't imagined. It loses sight of the fact that the best books – the books that last – are born of necessity, not just of the need to fill a gap in the market and give us an easeful few hours. Book prizes should be about writers, not readers.