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St Aubyn light
on 6 July 2014
Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words is a weak satire on literary prizes, in particular the Booker Prize and the 2011 judging panel. Headed by former MI5 head turned novelist Stella Rimington, the 2011 panel chose to focus on accessible books for the public to enjoy - because, y’know, reading can be enjoyable - rather than pretentiously written books, which usually take home the prize.
This angered the literati, not least because they have no clue how to write a compelling story, and the prize became the most controversial in years. That and the fact that St Aubyn was nominated for the prize in 2006 for Mother’s Milk and didn’t win, brings us to Lost for Words, a so-called comedy that very tamely claws the prize.
The story follows the selection of the Elysian Prize’s judges through to its long and then shortlisting. Each chapter follows a different character from the head of the judging panel, Malcolm, who’s an opportunist MP, to Alan, an editor having an affair with Katherine, a novelist, who failed to get onto the list this year because her publisher submitted the wrong book - an actual cookbook called The Palace Cookbook.
There are numerous other characters and at first it can seem a bit overwhelming - who’s Sonny? Sam? Vanessa? - but by about halfway through you’re more or less familiar with the cast. Except for the female judges of whom I think there were three but it was hard to distinguish between them. I think Vanessa was the one with the troublesome daughter and wanted the literary book to win, or maybe that was Jo? And there was definitely a third but her name and motivations escape me. It doesn’t help that St Aubyn can’t write individual voices so that most of the characters sound the same.
If satirising the prize itself feels a bit thin, plot-wise, St Aubyn throws in a half-baked romance plot that bores beyond belief. Katherine, the novelist, is included in this book solely because she sleeps with practically every male character. Sam the novelist loves her, Alan the editor loves her too but he’s far older and left his wife for her, Sonny the Indian prince kinda likes her, and so on. St Aubyn’s psychological analysis of Katherine’s behaviour is that her dad walked out on her as a kid so now she breaks off relationships with men before they can abandon her. Yawn. Wow, very insightful, never heard that before! So her inclusion was to deliver that piece of trite commentary?
There’s an even more flimsy assassination subplot as Sonny the Indian prince, hating exclusion on the list for his self-published 2000 page novel, gets his manservant to prepare to kill the winner. St Aubyn barely pursues this thread and gives up on it long before the end so that when it comes to the ceremony it’s hardly worth mentioning, it’s such a dead end.
St Aubyn also includes fictional passages from the shortlisted novels. “wot u starin at” is an Irvine Welsh-esque novel full of Scots injecting drugs, while “All the World’s a Stage” is an historical novel along the lines of Hilary Mantel’s books starring William Shakespeare, and “The Palace Cookbook” is literally a cookbook full of recipes interspersed with anecdotes from the family’s history. The joke here is that the tasteless judges think it’s an experimental piece.
The fictional passages make for an interesting change of pace but they’re not as well written as St Aubyn’s prose and not as enjoyable to read. St Aubyn also includes numerous passages from Didier, a French deconstructionist, who discourses at length on semiotics, which were the most tedious things to read. I understand the joke is that he’s being hyper-pretentious, but, yeesh, what a struggle to get through those passages!
Do we need to satirise the Booker Prize - does anyone take it seriously? You shouldn’t, it - and other literary prizes like it - are politicized like hell and the winner is rarely the best novel as the judges often have to compromise. But if you’ve read St Aubyn before, you’ll know his subject matter is often sharp and dark - drug abuse, child rape - so you’d expect his satire on the Booker would cut much deeper than it does. Satire is supposed to reveal hidden truths, right? As it is, you find out: writers are pretentious twits, literary judges are conniving idiots who know nothing about books and judge them purely for political reasons, and the prize itself is a joke. As if anyone reading this didn’t already know all of that! St Aubyn’s take is too easy and not inventive enough.
Humour is subjective but I didn’t laugh once during this comedic novel and didn’t really spot many jokes. One of the publishers was called Page & Turner (geddit?) and a novelist uses software where you type in a word and it spits out a pre-packaged sentence (because that’s how generic writing has become today!!) but St Aubyn’s attempts at humour are feeble at best. That’s not to say I didn’t like the book but it works best as a light novel gently satirising literary prizes than a great comic novel - that Lost for Words won this year’s Wodehouse prize only shows what a slow year it’s been for comic novels.
The parts where the judges get together to discuss the books were the best parts of the novel. St Aubyn gives us his take on literary judges and literary books, and that’s what the whole novel should’ve been about. The other parts, especially the extremely tedious romance subplots involving Katherine as well as the faux literary excerpts, could’ve been expelled from the novel with no effect on the story, and would’ve made the novel much more enjoyable.
Lost for Words is a book that rolls its eyes at literary culture while also giving the impression that its author is deeply entrenched within it. As it is, it’s good in parts, terrible in others, and it’s a light, quick read from a writer who usually produces work with more bite. But as a satire, it fails as it refuses to go for the jugular.