The Man Booker prize-winning author warns that political correctness is killing the way we read
Describing his experience of appearing at reading groups – “sometimes they are lovely, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes they are just staggeringly rude” – Jacobson said that he felt a sense of “heartbreak” when he heard readers say, “I don’t like this book because I don’t sympathise with the main character.”
He added: “The language of sympathy and identity and what we call political correctness is killing the way we read.
“That’s like the end of civilisation. That is the end. In that little sentence is a misunderstanding so profound about the nature of art, education and why we are reading, that it makes you despair. Who ever told anyone that they read a book in order to find themselves?”
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Jacobson said that the reader needed a “strong stomach” and ought to be able to withstand the “expression of an ugly point of view” in a book. There was, he added, great danger in the “politically correct” pressure that urged “you can’t write about women like that, you can’t write about men like that, you’ve got to be careful what you say about gays, you’ve got to be careful what you say about Jews… But you have to be able to say of the novel that it has free rein – it can go anywhere.”
His latest book, Zoo Time, is a comic novel about what he called the “multiplying degradations” of being a writer. When he began it, immediately after finishing The Finkler Question, he was convinced the novel that went on to win the Booker would be a disaster.
Being a novelist, he said, is “the nicest way of spending your life but it’s full of indignities. These indignities were swarming after I’d finished The Finkler Question. I also felt that no one was going to read it: the subject matter was inimical to the taste of the times. I was over, I thought. So I thought, ‘I’ll go out in a blaze, I’ll write one more novel that makes fun of myself: make fun of my dreams, make fun of my fantasies.'”
He added: “The signs were very, very bad for The Finkler Question. If ever I were not going to win the Man Booker prize, this was the time. I so wasn’t going to win the Man Booker prize that it actually can’t be that I won the Man Booker prize.”
Zoo Time, then, is about the failure of the novelist and the ruination of the publishing industry. It begins with its hero, a novelist called Guy Ableman, being arrested, after addressing a reading group in Chipping Norton, for shoplifting one of his own novels from the local Oxfam. In the second chapter, Ableman’s publisher shoots himself.
He put aside the draft of Zoo Time when he won the Booker, thinking, “How do you go on writing a book about literary failure when that happens? I put it away thinking that will be the final joke against me: great novel ruined by Booker prize.”
After a matter of months, though, he was prompted to take it up in “a state of retrospective despondency… It all came back to me, if possible even sharper than before, the misery of my life before winning the Man Booker prize.”