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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.
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on 10 May 2014
Whilst lacking the subtlety and breadth of the wonderful Melrose books, Lost For Words is an entertaining romp with some genuinely funny moments. At its best, when the economical, crafted prose has echoes of early Waugh, it offers promise of real quality. However, for most of the novel he tells his tale effectively, without aiming for any great heights The objects of his satire are obvious and personal, but hardly a revelation to any but the lest astute observer of the literary scene ( even from my distant perspective). Like Waugh, he has little emotional engagement with the characters he satirises and even the main focus of his ire, Penny Feathers ( another Waugh nudge) is not treated with great bitterness..The parodies that punctuate the narrative are a source of amusement and there is an overall sense of fun that makes this a satisfying quick read;it is, however, not the great comic novel, which I think he has in him.
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The fine line between satire and farce is obliterated in this novel about the annual granting of England’s most prestigious literary prize. Author Edward St. Aubyn never hesitates to leap with both feet from satire into bold farce here, as often as some of his characters jump into each other’s beds. At the same time, however, he also maintains a bemused and distantly objective point of view regarding the machinations of those authors competing for the Elysian Prize, along with the judges who will decide the winner, and the literary establishment which recognizes the internal wheeling and dealing but still takes the whole process seriously. The prize in this novel is named for Elysian, a highly controversial agricultural company which manufactures “the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and a leader in the field of genetically modified crops.”

St. Aubyn’s parodies of various literary styles, represented by some of the candidates for the Elysian Prize mentioned here will bring smiles of recognition to many readers. ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, a book favored by Elysian judge Tobias Benedict, an actor, shows St. Aubyn’s skill in writing sophisticated parodies of Shakespearean drama here. Conversations between William and Ben [Jonson] and Thomas Kyd and John Webster conjure up the controversy about who REALLY wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Like Shakespeare himself, author St. Aubyn also delights in mining the depths of low humor and farce for other scenes. The writing of one candidate for the prize, WOT YOU STARIN AT, by Hugh MacDonald, is so full of gutter language involving Death Boy and Wanker that it cannot be quoted here. A surprise candidate is THE PALACE COOKBOOK by Lakshmi Badanpur, an Indian cookbook combined with family memoir, in which the prize committee recognizes creative fictional overtones.

Despite his wonderful, over-the-top descriptions, St. Aubyn also maintains a reserve (and a distanced smirk) which gives added punch to some genuine issues within the plot of this novel. Malcolm Craig, a member of Parliament and Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has been appointed Chairman of the prize committee. The other judges are Penny Feathers, a thriller writer; Tobias Benedict, the actor, who is also the godson of Sir David Hampshire, the aristocrat in charge of choosing the prize committee; Jo Cross, a well-known columnist and media personality; and Vanessa Shaw, an “Oxbridge academic” who identifies her specific area of interest simply as “good writing.” None of the judges feel any need to read all the books on the Long List – and in choosing the Short List, all have at least one favorite novel – in some cases the only candidate for the prize that they have read at all.

St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, a book of significant literary accomplishment, gives the lie to the idea that good fiction is dead. Its humor, intelligence, and awareness of the greater world is not only intact but sparkling, a book which, in its way, celebrates the values which serious readers accept and even admire. Of all the books I have read recently, this one has been the most amusing during a period in which so much other reading has been ultra-serious and (often) very long. A perfect book for summer written by a well-recognized author who is taking a different and much welcomed tack, Lost for Words may not be on any Short Lists, but it is high on my own Favorites List.
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With ‘Lost for Words’ the author of ‘Patrick Melrose’ novels Edward St. Aubyn returns with style, bringing an ironic story about a famous literary prize award for which sometimes seems as if it is based on an actual event, not only on innovative and uncompromising author who is not afraid to convey his judgment what become of today's world of literature.

Though it’s written as satire, reader should not be fooled by that fact – as someone who was back in 2006 Man Booker Prize shortlisted for his work ‘Mother's Milk’ it seems that with his work St. Aubyn provides a humorous though not far from truth insight what is might happening behind-the-scenes of jury selection process.

In his novel Edward St. Aubyn brings the absurd that by mistake a cookbook becomes nominated for the prestigious award, and instead of disqualification by jury because work does not meet the requirements, it even becomes the favorite to win the award.

The book will especially appeal to fans of English humor, therefore do not expect while reading to lie on the floor laughing as is often the case with American humorous pieces, because in this case it is "serious" humor that makes smile staying on your lips even after the humorous part is behind.

Therefore, although I cannot say that I was equally impressed by this novel as with some of author’s earlier works, I can recommend ‘Lost for Words’ because it offers a good look into what today's literary scene turned to, and in particular what kind of circus the literary awards became which unfortunately are no longer a measure of quality, but of some other values which don’t have much in common with literature.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 May 2014
Following his breathtakingly brilliant Patrick Melrose books, Edward St Aubyn turns his beady eye on the back-biting world of London's literati, specifically the annual Booker circus, here thinly disguised as the Elysian Prize.

From the ill-chosen Elysian judges and the chair who reads nary a word of the books through to sundry sex-mad authors, pompous editors and vindictive Indian nabobs, the cast of self-serving characters entertain and delight as we are treated to a merciless send-up of the literary fiction scene, embellished with virtuoso verbal ventriloquism in the form of extracts from the writers' appalling prose.

What's that? A soft target, you say?

Well yes. But St Aubyn's slender satire is so scathingly clever, so horribly convincing and so downright funny that I have to say I loved every minute of it. How cool would the Booker panel show themselves to be if they put Lost For Words on their shortlist!
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Before I begin this review, let me just state that I loved the Edward St Aubyn Patrick Melrose novels. When my book club chose this as a monthly choice, I was very pleased and eager to read something else by him. Unlike previous works by St Aubyn which I have read, this is a satirical look at a fictitious literary prize, the Elysian Prize; although the author barely bothers to disguise the fact that he is writing about the Booker.

We begin with a backbench MP with an ailing career, Malcolm Craig, being asked to chair the committee. Hoping for some press coverage he agrees, but is obviously only interested in pushing through the books he is backing and being generally in control. Also on the committee is an actor who virtually never appears at meetings, a well known columnist and media personality who is passionate about ‘relevance,’ an Oxbridge academic, with an anorexic daughter, who is interested in ‘good writing,’ and thriller writer, Penny, an old girlfriend of Sir David Hampshire who organised the committee.

Along with these characters are, of course, the writers. They mostly circle around the beautiful novelist, Katherine Burns, and include the neurotic Sam Black, who years for her, Sonny, an upper class Indian with designs on the Elysian Prize, his aunt who somehow finds her cook book entered by mistake and a scattered number of publishers and agents.

Although this was humorous, and is filled with excepts from the various novels either submitted or written by the characters, you cannot help but feel St Aubyn had more fun writing this than we have reading it. There are a lot of jokes that have circled around the Booker – bizarre choices, books submitted by mistake and more. However, it is full of stereotypes and did not really do more than make me smile in places. I forgive this author anything for the sublime Melrose novels, but sadly this did not really match those in any way, despite being a pleasant enough read.
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on 22 May 2014
I've hugely enjoyed Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, but because of their semi-autobiographical content there is always a pall of sadness over them. How delicious then to see the author just having fun in 'Lost for Words'. Literary pretentiousness is always a good target for satire, and St Aubyn wields the scalpel of his wit with great delicacy in this tale of a major literary prize, of its judges and shortlisted authors. Because he is clearly having so much fun, the reader does too. Comparisons with Evelyn Waugh are fully justified.
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on 28 April 2016
The professional critics seem all agog at ESA's "mastery of language" and "tightly controlled prose" but this book shares the abiding fault of the Patrick Melrose novels - the writing is too perfect, too exquisitely wrought and flawlessly grammatical, and, as a consequence, is as warm and welcoming as a cold marble floor. That may be the correct register for something as harrowing as the Melrose sequence but it shouldn't be here, basically a spoof on literary prizes and the idiots inhabiting the world of the published word. In truth, readers, it's pretty thin stuff and elicited only an odd chortle from this reviewer. It's also relentlessly clever in all the wrong ways - the Didier character gives ESA the licence to spout fashionable literary nonsense and there are references aplenty to other authors, most unforgivably the late, great American poet Wallace Stevens (who I think our chap admires) in "Complacencies of the peignoir", the opening words of Sunday Morning. But, hey, if I spotted that, it means I'm as clever as ESA and that's very clever indeed. Brilliant!
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Most readers - serious or not - tend to keep track of the finalists and the winners of the major literary awards. There are literally hundreds of organisations who give prizes for literary excellence. Perhaps one of the coveted is the "Man Booker Prize", awarded to the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK. For an author, even to be recognised as being on the "Long List" is an honor. But who are the judges and what criteria do these organisations use to recognise excellence in writing?

British author Edward St Aubyn's novel, "Lost for Words" is a look - a glance, really - at the Man Booker Award, here named the "Elysian Prize". The book, which is clever, is actually pretty short and is a fast read. St Aubyn gives the five judges - drawn from the literary, political, and arts worlds - with their pasts, presents, and futures, and, most important, their literary biases. He also features excerpts from some of the books under consideration. One of the six finalist books is an Indian cookery book, which was submitted by mistake by the publisher. He was supposed to submit a novel - the prize is for novels - and instead the cookery book is sent in its place. Edward St Aubyn is clever in both his plot and characters but somehow the book seems insubstantial. There's not much there for the reader to remember when he's finished the book.

Perhaps a better book on the same subject is Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Carnage on the Committee". Dudley Edwards writes the "Robert Amiss/Lady Jack Troutbeck" novels - which are savage, not "politically correct" mysteries - and "Carnage" is a biting look at the committee set up to select the "Knapper-Warburton Literary Award" winner.

Edward St Aubyn's book is a gentle, satirical look at literary prizes, while Ruth Dudley Edwards' is much more over-the-top witty.
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on 4 June 2014
I was really looking forward to this after good press reviews and its triumph in the Humour awards. And it was quite witty, a quick read and beautifully written. But...I found it rather hard to follow - lots of characters and I wasn't quite sure which one I was supposed to be rooting for (maybe none?). And I'm not embarassed to admit some of the 'jokes' were of the 'in' variety and I am obviously not 'in' the right crowd. Ironic really, considering St. Aubyn wrote this as a bit of a p*ss-take of the lit crit world yet you can only 'get' much of this book if you follow said society. It probably won't be on my list of re-reads.
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