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Book Talk: “Lost for Words” pokes fun at Britain’s literary Oscars

LONDON: “Lost for Words” by British writer Edward St Aubyn is a merciless send-up of Britain’s literary “Oscars”, which stir up a media frenzy every year over which novel should win and a backlash if the favourite doesn’t.

The Man Booker prize winner is assured fame and fortune and increased sales at least in the short term. But the judges seem to have trouble trying to balance the promotion of new writers with rewarding established authors.

They have a reputation for coming up with unexpected choices and have been accused of going for populism over quality. British writer Julian Barnes, who won the Man Booker prize in 2011 after being shortlisted on three previous occasions, described the process as “posh bingo”.

So it is with the “Elysian Prize” in “Lost for Words” where it soon becomes clear that winning is a lottery and has very little to do with literary merit.

The Elysian judges, who pick a winner from some 200 works of fiction, have other fish to fry and have little time, or inclination, to read many of the books.

Obscure Member of Parliament Malcolm Craig accepts the job as chairman of the prize judges because he needs some “extra-curricular activities to secure a decent amount of public attention”.

Up-and-coming actor Tobias Benedict is made a judge partly because he is the godson of a director of the Elysian Group – an agribusiness company that sponsors the prize and is controversially known for creating such genetically modified crops such as “giraffe carrots” and “cod wheat”.

Benedict barely has time to attend any of the judges’ meetings because he is busy touring the country with a hip-hop version of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.

Penny Feathers, spy/diplomat turned thriller-writer, finds being an Elysian judge gets in the way of writing her latest page-turner – “Roger and Out”.

The books jostling to be on the short list highlight the faddish nature of recent British fiction. “All the World’s a Stage”, by a young New Zealander, is a historical novel about Jacobean London from the point of view of William Shakespeare. “wot u starin at” claims to be a work of “gritty social realism” about life on a Glasgow housing estate.

But due to a publishers’ mix-up and disarray among the judges, a cookbook by an Indian aristocrat known as Auntie gets on to the shortlist and eventually triumphs. Media personality and columnist Jo Cross, another Elysian judge, defends it as a “ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece”.

St Aubyn has a dig too at the literary establishment. One of the characters, French post-structuralist Didier, writes an acceptance speech for Auntie when her Palace Cookbook wins.

“The Palace, we are told, is ruined, abandoned, lost, and yet it stands behind the Cookbook, just as the matrix of syntax stands behind the banality of the semantic corpus.”

There are probably lots of in-jokes and barbed references in the book that go over the heads of those not close to London’s literati, prompting some reviewers in the British press to try to work out who some of the characters might be based on.

“Could Penny Feather (one of the judges) be Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5 (intelligence service) who chaired the 2011 Booker committee?” the Telegraph asked. St Aubyn, who declined to be interviewed by Reuters, told the paper he didn’t have anyone particular in mind.

St Aubyn also told the Telegraph there were good things about literary prizes in that they draw attention to the books, and give writers some cash and sales which are badly needed.

His own literary reputation has been riding high on the back of his critically acclaimed Patrick Melrose novels. One of these – “Mother’s Milk” – was shortlisted for the prize in 2006 but did not win.

A subsequent book, “At Last”, did not make the Man Booker long list in 2011. In “Lost for Words” he could be taking his revenge or just having a bit of fun.

Among the barbs and satire, St Aubyn also injects a few insights into what it is like being a writer.

Thriller-writer Penny Feather is trying to wean herself off computer software called Ghost, which helps to bulk up her sentences. “If you typed ‘river’ into Gold Ghost Plus you got “dark flood flecked with gold”.

Sam Black, perhaps the only serious novelist who makes it on to the Elysian short list, sits at his desk, his pen poised above paper, wondering: “Should he start with a declaration, or a description, a dialogue, or a comparison.”

He is paralysed by the possibilities. “Sam dropped his pen on the desk. It was all too complicated. To say anything at all would be a mistake.” – Reuters




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