[Reading levels of past Man Booker winners appear at the end of this review.]
Bearing the white man’s burden of introducing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to a black teenager as a guerrilla war of secession rages on a Pacific island
Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. Dial, 256 pp., $20.
By Janice Harayda
No literary prize attracts controversy as regularly as the Man Booker, given annually to a novel by an author from the Commonwealth or Ireland. Even so, you have to wonder if another uproar won’t occur if this year’s award goes to Mister Pip, the finalist by New Zealander Lloyd Jones that is the favorite of London bookies.
There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)
How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.
A third-grade reading level might be startling in any finalist: Who knew that the Man Booker was a prize for children’s literature? (Did anybody tell J.K. Rowling’s publisher about this?) But there’s a second problem that relates to specifically to Mister Pip. Why does a novel narrated by a university graduate have the reading the level of an 8-year-old? Jones clearly wants to show the world as Matilda saw it while living on Bougainville, but she was a precocious 13-year-old then. He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7. The racial implications of having a black university graduate tell her story at an 8-year-old level beg for comment by scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard www.harvard.edu.
To write forcefully from the point of view of someone looking back on childhood events, you need to show the richness of that child’s perceptions, a fact Dickens understood brilliantly. In Mister Pip we get Mitch Albom-esque pseudoprofundities. There is much talk of “the wisdom of crabs,” “what the lychee can teach us” and “the great shame of trees,” which is apparently that they “have no conscience.” Mister Pip brims with lines that seem to have floated off refrigerator magnets. “It is hard to be a perfect human being, Matilda.” “There are some things you never expect to lose, things you think will forever be part of you, even if it is only a toenail.” “You would never guess that a hairbrush and a toothbrush could be so important and necessary.” What if, actually, you would have guessed that a toothbrush could be necessary?
For anyone who doesn’t need to be reminded such self-evident pieties, the main interest of Mister Pip lies in its resurrection of the details of the little-known war that Bougainville fought for secession from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. Jones offers several memorable glimpses of its forgotten atrocities, such as the tossing of rebels to their deaths from helicopters over the Pacific. But this historical footnote is likely to provide scant – if any — comfort for anyone who expects more than third-grade level prose from a Man Booker finalist.
Mister Pip has been called “a hymn to reading,” as Carole Angier put it in the British magazine the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk. And while that’s true, most adults have read more thoughtful paeans to reading than Jones’s comment that when you hold a book, “you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own.” Many American children encountered one of them when were assigned to read Emily Dickinson’s “There is No Frigate Like a Book,” which begins: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away / Nor any coursers like a page / Of prancing poetry/.”
So may I suggest that anyone looking for a “hymn to reading” skip Jones and go directly to Dickinson? Not only does she express in four lines a theme it takes Jones 256 pages to develop. She also writes at the 12th-grade reading level found in one the best-loved Booker winners, The Remains of the Day.
This review is written at the level of grade 11.7, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.
Best line: “We were used to the redskins’ helicopters buzzing in and out of the cloud around the mountain peaks. Now we saw them head out to sea in a straight line. The helicopter would reach a certain point, then turn around and come back as if it had forgotten something. Where they [sic] turned back was just a pinprick in the distance. We could not see the men thrown out. But that’s what we heard. The redskins flung the captured rebels out the open door of the helicopter, their arms and legs kicking in the air.”
Worst line: “A prayer was like a tickle. Sooner or later God would have to look down and see what was tickling his bum.”
How to find the grade level of a text using Microsoft Word: Enter a passage from the text into your computer and run the spell-checker. Read down to the bottom of the window that appears on your screen when the spell-checking is complete. In the last line you’ll see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.” This tells you the American grade level.
U.S. school grades and corresponding ages: American children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8; fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; 9th grade (freshman year high school), 14; 10th grade (sophomore year high school), 15; 11th grade (junior year high school), 16; 12th grade (senior year high school), 17.
How I calculated the Man Booker reading levels: I generally entered 300 words of expository text found between pages 23 and 25. The reason? The first chapter of a novel is often atypical, because many writers need a chapter to find their stride. A chapter usually has about 20 pages, so I started a few pages after page 20. I chose passages containing mainly expository text because lines of dialogue may misrepresent the overall level if, for example, they are spoken by a laconic character who tends to give monosyllabic answers (which can result in a low grade level). For Mister Pip I entered three passages that began on pages 23, 123 and 223 of the American edition.
Grade levels of selected Man Booker winners www.themanbookerprize.com: The Remains of the Day, grade 12; Life of Pi, grade 10.5; The Sea, grade 10.2; Midnight’s Children, grade 10; Schindler’s Ark (the original title of Schindler’s List), grade 8.9; Hotel du Lac, grade 8.8.; Possession, grade 8.7; Offshore, grade 8.1. The level the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss, varied from 5.3 to 12 for an average of 8.1.
For the grade levels of other living and dead writers from Mitch Albom to James Boswell, see the post that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 16 (“Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. For the writing levels of U.S. Presidents, see the post that appeared on Feb. 10 (“Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson”) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/10/.
Published: August 2007 www.dialpress.com
Charles Dickens sites: The many good sites on Dickens include that of the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org when the late Booker winner Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore) won the NBCC fiction prize for The Blue Flower in 1998. Fitzgerald said in an interview after winning the NBCC prize: “I was so unprepared to win the award that I hadn’t even planned a celebration. I certainly shan’t do the ironing today!”
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.