The prestigious Booker literary prize and a tenfold jump in sales have not softened John Banville’s view of the work of some of his fellow authors.
The Irish writer was the surprise Booker winner this year with his “The Sea,” besting bigger names including Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro.
In accepting the prize, the 59-year-old rankled some with his comment that “this time” it had gone to a “work of art.” “The Sea” is the story of a recently widowed man visiting the seaside resort where he spent time as a young man and trying to find the meaning of life-changing memories.
Books qualify as art when they deal in timeless themes and not social commentary, Banville said.
“When they take on current events ... they cannot succeed,” he said in an interview this week, as his book was published in the United States.
Banville said writers err when they take on topics like Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and he sparked a strong reaction when he called McEwan’s “Saturday,” which dealt with those themes, a “dismayingly bad book” in the New York Review of Books.
McEwan had been widely expected to be a Booker finalist, but did not make the list.
Banville said he was stunned at the reactions to his review, both positive and negative. “I wonder about the wisdom of doing the review. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Some people saw it as one novelist giving a kicking to another and that’s not what I intended,” Banville said.
Nonetheless, he persisted in his critique of books about Sept. 11.
“The 9/11 attack was a huge and terrible thing but it was not unique. I come from a country where, if you put it in scale, some say 350,000 people would have died from the violence,” Banville said.
He chose never to write about “the Irish troubles” and he probably never will.
‘Fiction is not journalism’“Novelists should be banned from writing about things for 20 years after they happen. Fiction is not journalism and one should never confuse them. Journalism is about relaying the heat of events and fiction can’t do that. It has to done coolly,” he said.
Reviews of “The Sea” have been largely favorable, with a few notable exceptions. The New York Times called it “stilted, claustrophobic, and numbingly pretentious.”
Banville says he doesn’t read reviews, although he writes them prolifically and was literary editor of the Irish Times.
“The problem is that when you win the prize the really hot shot reviewers who normally would not give your book a second thought start to look at it,” and they are “middle brow reviewers who like energetic mediocrities that are on the best seller list for a week or two and then plunge into oblivion.”
But he is thankful that, after 13 novels, he won the Booker, which recognizes work from Britain, the Commonwealth and Ireland. “The Sea” has become his best selling work, jumping “10- to 15-fold” in sales.
“The Booker prize has some kind of magic with the public that is extraordinary. Nothing else like it, not the Nobel, or the Pulitzer, sells books like the Booker.”
Banville said “The Sea” probably wasn’t his best work and regards “The Book of Evidence,” which was short-listed for the Booker, as more worthy.
“I know myself how good my work is,” he said. “Neither a review or a Booker prize tells me more.”