Since his days as editor of the trade magazine The Bookseller, Nicholas Clee has long been one of the most astute commentators on the world of books and publishing, combining a thoroughgoing knowledge of the subject with an approachable style – qualities to be found in abundance in The Booker and the Best, a highly readable study of an undercovered topic (the subtitle is “What ‘Good’ Means in Literature”).
Clee’s interest here is in how the reading public judges books (as refracted, for instance, through such literary baubles as the Man Booker Prize) and, specifically, how definitions of genre can be needlessly reductive — as he says, ‘Genres have unfortunately come to be associated with qualities that limit novels as works of art, and… many fine books have been underrated as a result.’ For this writer, Clee’s analysis is particularly apposite concerning crime fiction – I spend a lot of time arguing for the virtues of the field against those who consider the literary novel to be a more rarefied form of expression (even today, when many writers have brought ‘literary’ qualities to the crime novel). What’s more, Clee has noticed that it isn’t just crime that has been judged unworthy of a place on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, but also science fiction, children’s books and even ‘regional’ novels. As well as discussing a well-chosen selection of writers, Clee’s topics include high art versus popular art, along with what he describes as the ‘highbrow sneer’ patronising English popular culture, and even the art of book reviewing (the second topic here that this professional reviewer read with keen interest). What is perhaps most admirable about The Booker and the Best is its enviable range of ambition within the confines of a relatively modest-sized text. It’s an admirably entertaining, provocative read – and it would be nice to think that certain hidebound perceptions might be altered if enough people read it.
The Booker and the Best by Nicholas Clee (Kindle Single/Amazon) will be available late January 2018