Some of my most challenging and interesting consultancy work is to get creative with highly complex and dull source material — white papers, interviews, research, half-baked thoughts from hugely talented individuals. It turns out that the skills I honed during more than 20 years in mass market journalism are highly prized in business arenas I never imagined I would work in — banking, pharmaceuticals, technology and others.
These brands realise they have to engage with wide audiences if they are to have a greater impact, find that extra meaning in what they do, to matter more. Public relations is less effective and more expensive than ever. Well crafted words on myriad channels are the opposite.
Which is why I’d like to offer up my skills to the 2019 Man Booker Prize judging committee — for free. If ever a brand needed to reconnect with its audience and remind itself who actually buys novels, it’s this out-of-touch bastion of elitist thinking.
The winner of this year’s prize is the undoubtedly talented and extraordinarily humble writer Anna Burns whose novel, Milkman, has been described as ‘unique….disarmingly oblique…stylistically utterly distinctive…potent and urgent.’
It is also totally unreadable. Well not totally. I am after all reading it. But it is perhaps the most dense, difficult and least enjoyable novel I have read in a long time. Sorry Anna, it’s just not my thing. I’m all for experimentation — I loved last year’s utterly bizarre and obscure winner, Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders, for instance, and my shelves groan under the weight of wilfully complex writing. But just because something is experimental (and thus highly difficult to read) does that make it the best?
In my consultancy, I’m almost certain that the individuals whose thoughts I translate into ‘stories’ think I’m cheapening their work. That their product is better than mine. And it is. But my work is read, consumed, shared and reacted to by a far wider audience who might think my work is better. In a very small way, my creative instincts help to provide more meaning to what these people do. Hopefully, the paymaster brands that we work for will benefit too.
And it is the brand that I’m most interested about, not the writer. I am not in any way criticising Anna Burns. I envy her prodigious talent, bravery and achievement. But most of the casual readers who will now buy and read her book because it has won the most prestigious British literary prize will, I fear, be hugely disappointed. Milkman is well-crafted but, boy, is it a tough read.
Even the Booker judges admit it. The panel chairman, Kwame Anthony Appiah, said the novel, which focuses on the musings of a teenage girl during the North Ireland Troubles, ‘was enormously rewarding…if you persist with it.’ Another, Leanne Shapton, said that she found it more comprehensible third time around when she read it out aloud. Because that’s what all of us would do, Leanne.
The book industry is in crisis. Just look at how few new books are sold in a week. According to the Nielsen Bookscan list, to get into the top 10 of bestsellers, your non-fiction book only needs to be bought by 1,500 people and your new hardback novel only needs to appeal to 2,800 readers. Your Top 10 paperback needs to sell less than double that amount.
Whilst more books are being written, organisations such as the Man Booker are far removed from the audiences they should be engaging with, rather than the dinner jacket/pearl necklace-clad audience they’re most comfortable engaging with.
Perhaps the Man Booker Advisory Committee, whose membership is admirably diverse, should emulate its garish North American cousin, the Academy of Motion Pictures which is being truly experimental. Next year, for the first time, an Oscar will be awarded to ‘achievement in popular film’, after years of only lauding obscure art-house pictures that few people see when they first open and fewer people enjoy when they queue up, post-prize, to see what all the fuss was about. In effect, there will be two Best Film Oscars — one for the film you want to see, the other for the film you ought to.
‘Best’ is such a difficult concept anyway. Best for who and for what reason? For Booker Prize chairman Kwame — a lifetime academic whose Wikipedia page pompously proclaims that he is a ‘philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist whose interests include political and moral theory and the philosophy of language and mind’ — best might mean something very different to the millions of people who browse bookshops and click on Amazon.
As a brand, the Booker is as distant from its wider audience as those whose work I often adapt. The difference is that at least my brands understand that they must engage with that wider audience if their work is to find new meaning and be consumed by people whose lives will undoubtedly be changed (and hopefully improved) by consuming it. I worry that buying Milkman may make people less inclined to read Booker-winning novels.
I once worked for a newspaper whose incoming Arts Editor famously declared that his pages would be ‘unashamedly elitist’ and that the arts coverage would be going ‘vertically upmarket’ or some such nonsense. And his undoubted success in delivering that coincided with a catastrophic fall in our newspaper sales. I know most people don’t buy newspapers just to read about the arts but his pretentious arrogance meant the brand lost touch with its wider audience.
If you want people to read more, by all means hand Anna Burns the top prize but do so alongside another award that lauds something that will appeal to readers outside of an elitist sect that openly thinks struggling through a book is a beneficial thing.
One of the judges said that getting to the end was as rewarding as a long, tough hike up Snowdonia in Wales. It’s not easy, he said, but the view when you get to the top is worth it. Well I also think the view from the top of Parliament Hill in North London is pretty good too. Not only is the hour-long trek from my favoured starting point worth it but you can reward yourself afterwards with an ice cream from the local shop. And I bet more people enjoy that than Snowdonia.
So Man Booker Prize people, here’s my challenge. Put me on next year’s committee and we’ll find a novel that people will actually want to read. I’m already in two argumentative book clubs, I’m pretty sure I can squeeze in another.