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Appiah's novel philosophy

Appiah's novel philosophy

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has just been announced as the chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize judges. One of the concerns of his work is the effects of globalisation and in particular what he terms “cosmopolitanism”. He should know, being an Anglo-Ghanaian American. This heritage gives him a privileged overview, so when he says that different cultures should be respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people” he has first-hand knowledge. Appiah has written three novels himself and started his philosophy career by specialising in semantics, something which may make novelists hopeful of reaching the 2018 Man Booker list gulp with apprehension. To show how good a fit Appiah is for the task ahead, his definition of cosmopolitanism could also double as a definition of the novel itself: “universality plus difference”.

Kazuo Ishiguro picked up his Nobel Prize this week and was required to give not one but two speeches – one at the citation ceremony and the other at the awards dinner. The 1989 Man Booker winner used his speeches to talk about his formation as a writer, in particular his student days while attending the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. “Throughout the winter of 1979-80, and well into the spring,” he recalled, “I spoke to virtually no-one aside from the other five students in my class, the village grocer from whom I bought the breakfast cereals and lamb kidneys on which I existed, and my girlfriend, Lorna, (today my wife) who'd come to visit me every second weekend. It wasn't a balanced life.” He also recalled sleeping on a foam mattress that made him sweat and starting various stories he was never to finish: “One was about a macabre suicide pact, the other about street fights in Scotland. They were not so good. I started another story, about an adolescent who poisons his cat.” Eventually he settled on the story that was to become his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. Standing in white tie in front of the Swedish Academy with universal acclaim ringing in his ears and a huge cheque in his pocket, how long ago it must have all seemed.

An interesting recent article shows how deeply rooted some perceptions of literature are. The piece looks at why fantasy novels – with the exception of Ben Okri's The Famished Road and Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children – haven't been prominent in the Man Booker: “Historical, dramatic literature with a focus on a few characters facing philosophical and moral crises would steal the show every time.” The writer says that is changing, citing George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo as an example. Looking back at some of some Man Booker books of the past 10 years, however, shows that fantastical themes have been more present than one might think. Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, and Howard Jacobson's J have all been shortlisted or won the prize, none are what could be called realist philosophical novels.

The draft for one of those novels, Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, reached a whopping 800 pages before Thayil took a knife to it and whittled it down to a more manageable 300 pages. He didn't discard the lopped sections, however, but repurposed them; in one instance as his new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints. In a recent interview he recalled being lulled to sleep by the clacking of the keys of his father's typewriter. Indeed he credits that sort of sensory perception as the reason he is now a writer: “If you are a child and you see the adults in your life reading, you become a reader. In the same way, when you are a child and see the adults around you writing, you become a writer”.