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The unpleasantness of literature

The unpleasantness of literature

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner in 2010, has been in fine, well, Jacobsonian form recently when defending this year's winner, Marlon James, against a reviewer who took against A Brief History of Seven Killings. On the attack Jacobson noted that, ‘First, the unpleasantness about which she complains has always inhered to serious writing as surely as a bonk inheres to Jackie Collins. Did Medea have to murder her children? Couldn’t Regan’s husband have plucked out just one of Gloucester’s eyes? Those who inveigh against gratuitous s*** and violence inveigh against literature itself. Literature is necessarily gratuitous. No one makes us do it.’ He wasn't finished though: ‘Second, when a reader describes feeling queasy she has to be certain to distinguish between the book and her own weakness of constitution. It is no judgement of a thing outside yourself to say it makes you ill . . . the book you find too challenging might only show how ill-equipped you are to face its challenge.’ The moral of the story – don't rile Howard Jacobson. Marlon James has been reflecting on how his win has gone down in his native Jamaica. ‘They know it’s a big deal,’ he says, but ‘I don’t think a lot of people who are celebrating it have read the book. They’ll probably read the book now and say, ‘What the hell am I celebrating?’’ And when asked what he thought of his book being described as the ‘Great Jamaican Novel’ he responded: ‘It’s a horrible thing to strive for. I think it’s such a fake and false thing to strive for. That’s not to say you can’t have huge ambition. I’m a really, really, really ambitious writer. Why not?’ That, of course, doesn't mean A Brief History of Seven Killings isn't a Great Jamaican Novel. Marlon James was not the only winner this year. All the shortlisted authors are given a specially-bound copy of their own book created by some of the best bookbinders in the business. For these craftsmen and women the Man Booker commission is an honour, albeit one that comes with a great deal of pressure. One of this year's bookbinders is Kate Holland who created the special edition of Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways. Her leather cover shows a series of marigold petals floating across an urban skyline – the petals representing the immigrant workers of the novel and the setting being Sheffield. The result looks effortless but was anything but: ‘It takes around 100-150 hours to do a fine binding from start to finish,’ says Holland, ‘and that’s not counting a lot of thinking time. I take endless photos on my phone of inspiring images when I’m out and about and keep a scrap book of pictures magazines as well as illustrations from children’s books.’ So, all those hours later, was it worth it? ‘It has been a very intense four weeks living and breathing this project but binding a book that I particularly enjoyed reading has made the whole experience a lot more manageable.’ Just to show how far the Man Booker ripples reach, another beneficiary is the firm of Clays in Bungay in Suffolk. Clays is the company that prints Marlon James's book for his publisher Oneworld and his win meant that the button was immediately pressed on the printing presses for an extra 80,000 copies – a number that will surely rise. The plan was put into operation as soon as the shortlist was announced. A company spokeswoman said: ‘We’re hugely thrilled and delighted for him and extremely happy to print it for him.’ ‘Extremely happy’ takes understatement to new levels.