The Conflict between Pop Culture and Literature

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Is the literary novel doomed? The question bubbles into the media's consciousness whenever Booker Prize fever is at is height. (I know the award is now officially called the Man Booker Prize, but old habits die hard.) However, this year's bout of soul-searching was given added urgency by the revelation, shortly before the announcement of the winner (Anne Enright's "The Gathering"), that the aggregate sales of the six titles on the shortlist amounted to fewer than those for the latest fictional tome by Katie Price.

At this point I should explain, for the benefit of American readers, that Miss Price - known to her public simply as Jordan - is a bargain-basement version of Posh Spice. (Posh who? I hear some Washington Times readers ask. Oh dear, this is becoming very complicated. Let me start again. Katie Price is a British glamor model renowned for her balloon-like, surgically enhanced breasts and her, um, colorful domestic life.)

She also possesses a remarkably charmless public persona, although this has not stopped her reaping a fortune through endorsements and similar celebrity enterprises. Her books are simply one element of the all-conquering marketing exercise. Her autobiography is said to be the fourth-best-selling memoir ever published in this country. She writes novels too (or, at least, she is reported to have a ghostwriter who puts words to paper for her) and it was one of these works, "Crystal," that streaked ahead of the Booker contenders.

If this was not ominous enough, the chairman of the judges in this year's competition, Sir Howard Davies, was rash enough to be rude about the book-reviewing trade. A member of the great and the good - he used to be director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and now heads the London School of Economics - Sir Howard made his undiplomatic observations at the prize-giving ceremony. "At times," he confided, "we were surprised by the reverential tone adopted by reviewers in relation to books which, to us, did not come off at all, and which we could not conceivably recommend to a broader readership . . .

"Many reviews this year, which I looked at after my reading, were not a good guide to the quality of the books on offer . . . I think a little more distance, and critical skepticism, is required by our reviewers, together with greater readiness to notice new names. …