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Books and fighting the world

Books and fighting the world

At the Baillie Gifford Prize ceremony this week – won by David France for his chronicle of AIDS activism,How to Survive a Plague – mention was made of the importance, in these fake news times, of non-fiction as being “the only medium of thick description of the world that human beings possess”. The 2014 Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan recently wrote that fake news is not the only enemy, so too is the “cult of solipsism”. It is, he said, “a cult that leads everyone on their various social media wanting to be the first person. And yet, strangely, each first person feels more than ever that nothing offers them any insight into their own mystery. Every first person feels themself ever more alone and lost, and prone to the great pandemics of our age: depression, sadness, loneliness, suicide.” Perhaps that's where both the best fiction and non-fiction can help – in showing that solipsism is not the only way and that the real world is an infinitely more complex organism than any single individual.

Recognition comes in all shapes and sizes. The latest accolade to come the way of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and who died in 2013, arrived this week in the form of a “Google Doodle”, the banner on the web search giant's home-page. The doodle, showing him in his trademark beret, marked what would have been the grand old man of African letters' 87th birthday. The search engine's citation stated: “One man took it upon himself to tell the world the story of Nigeria through the eyes of its own people.” The lauded author of Things Fall Apart once wrote that: “In the end, I began to understand, there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative”.

The self-avowed republican Zadie Smith, a Man Booker shortlistee in 2005 and a longlistee this year, knows the meaning of clickbait. Writing in Vogue she took aim at the Queen for being middle class. The evidence being that Her Royal Majesty pours her breakfast delivered to her in a Tupperware container and reads the Racing Post. “Did ever a monarch seem more likely to prefer a nice flowery pelmet curtain to a white wooden shutter?” Smith asked. “Or a staycation in front of the telly to a glamorous Tuscan retreat or Caribbean break?” These seem bizarre criticisms but still, she's entitled to her opinion. Where she might have gone too far is in dragging the Queen's corgis into it. Criticising the pooches for having “squat” bodies and “stubby legs” can only have hurt the poor creatures' feelings. One suspects Smith's prospects of a damehood have gone for good. Of course, there is just the possibility that Smith had her tongue firmly tucked in her cheek while writing.

John Banville, Man Booker winner in 2005, was recently asked what was the best piece of advice he has ever been given: “The advice I gave myself early on,” he responded. “Never take anyone’s advice.” He was also asked what's currently bugging him: “It might be better to ask, what is not bugging me. I’ve reached the age where I can be unapologetically a cross old geezer whom everything annoys.” He may be a cross old geezer but he's still a stickler for grammar.

Congratulations must go to to Nicola Barker, Man Booker shortlisted in 2007 for Darkmans, who has just been awarded the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction. Her winning novel H(A)PPY describes a dystopian future where ageing, desire and stress no longer exist. As the Man Booker recognised a decade ago, Barker has always been a writer of quality. The author herself puts it a different way: “I'm a niche writer and I see no harm in it. I like niches.”