One-Minute Book Reviews

September 25, 2007

The Case Against Giving Prizes to Dumbed-Down Books

What’s the harm giving literary awards to books written at an 8-year-old reading level?

Okay, so the frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, is written at a third-grade level www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/. Is there any harm in giving it the prize, anyway? Does the level matter if people enjoy the book?

In this case, it matters a lot. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The Man Booker Prize is one of the world’s major literary honors, perhaps second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature. To give the award to a novel written at a third-grade reading level would all but sanctify the dumbing down of our culture. The problem isn’t that all writers should write above an agreed-on level — it’s that a low reading level leads to pandering and oversimplification. Most third-graders need simplified books because their brains aren’t fully developed. What’s the point of writing at an 8-year-old reading level for adults?

2. Giving the prize to a novel written at a third-grade level would be unfair to all the children’s authors who write books at the same level and weren’t nominated because their publishers assumed they weren’t eligible. You might wonder, for example, why J.K. Rowling never appeared on a shorlist.

3. The Man Booker Prize typically leads a huge increase in sales of a book. If the award goes to Mister Pip, many people will buy it – or may already have done so — with the false expectation that they are getting a book written at a higher level.

4. Mister Pip is narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing impact of hearing a white man read Great Expectations at the age of 13. That such an educated woman would still think like an 8-year-old, in the context of the novel, defies belief. It also raises questions about cultural expectations of women and blacks that beg for comment by scholars and others.

Given all of this, what can readers, booksellers, librarians and others do?

If you haven’t bought the book, don’t buy it, or wait for the paperback. If you bought it and were disappointed, ask for your money back. Or leave a comment in the forum on the Booker site www.themanbookerprize.com entitled, “Did the Judging Panel Get the Shortlist Right?” If you are a bookseller or librarian, consider displaying Mister Pip in the children’s section or recommending it mainly for children under 12.

As for me, I’m trying to decide what to do on One-Minute Book Reviews if a book written at a third-grade level wins a major prize like the Booker or National Book Award. Should I move the review of the winner to the “Children’s Books” category? Let this blog “go dark” for a day? Or just put an asterisk if the title?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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