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The Good, the Bad and the BDSM

Congratulations to Eleanor Catton, who has been awarded the Booker Prize for her sprawling epic The Luminaries.

luminariesstack Unity

Never heard of it? It’s okay, I hadn’t either. In fact, you could question the relevance of literary prizes when bigger sales are earned by so-called ‘easy reads’ like 50 Shades of Grey. No doubt having a shiny ‘Booker Prize’ sticker will boost The Luminaries’ sales, but even the most successful winner has only achieved one thirtieth of the sales of EL James’ BDSM sensation.

Maybe the very popularity of 50 Shades and its derivatives makes literary prizes worthwhile though. Some argue that now more than ever we need to reward ‘good’ literature. Indeed, if the only options in a dichotomous market are critically-panned bestseller or under-read masterpiece, the clout of a nomination is one thing that can push overlooked works towards a wider audience.

It instantly makes buyers think “That’ll be good” or, at the very least, “I’ll look clever by having that on my shelf”. Moreover, a shot at such esteem is one of the only reasons publishers invest in books otherwise unlikely to have sky-high sales. These arguments hinge on notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature, and assumptions that great novels never appeal to the masses.

Is this always the case? And more importantly, should we hold such snobbish views? Whatever you think about Kindles or Stephenie Meyer’s sentence structure, if people are enthusiastic about books of any standard it must be positive.

There’s no reason prestige novels can’t nestle alongside some guilty pleasures, and anyway, if you’ve spent all day studying Proust why not indulge in some ‘mummy porn’ tactfully concealed behind a copy of Concrete on the bus home?

In an ideal world there would be no division between high and low art. Alas, we live in a world of Boris Johnson’s hair and 20p Freddos – it’s far from ideal, and such divisions are likely to continue.

Then again, it’s impossible to predict how perceptions might change – Shakespeare was the popular entertainment of his day, after all. It may never win a Booker, but 50 Shades could become the Hamlet of future generations, studied accross British GCSE English classrooms. Well, perhaps. Let’s leave it on that terrifying thought.

05/11/2013

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