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Playtime with Howard Jacobson

Playtime with Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner in 2010 with The Finkler Question, has been musing – in his inimitable way – on the nature of art and creativity. In a speech delivered to the Royal Academy he suggested that being an artist (writer, painter, musician et al) is all about play. ‘Play, as I think of it, is the means whereby we loose ourselves from the mainland of the familiar and acceptable,’ he says ‘The means, too, whereby we lose ourselves in the act of creation, and find what we had no idea we were looking for, and maybe sometimes wish we had not found at all.’ The ability to play is what sets artists apart; it is their real gift above technique and topic: ‘No traveller ever sets out with so little idea of where he is going or how he is going to get there than an artist does. And no traveller ever gets to a more wonderful place.’

Another Man Booker winner, Anne Enright (2007, The Gathering), was recently asked an interesting question – which prompted an interesting answer (interviewers please take note): ‘What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?’ to which she replied, ‘The day after the Man Booker Prize in 2007, I did 38 interviews. I had just published a book dealing with suicide and sexual abuse and 38 journalists asked me about success and failure. Through every type and style of question in the years that followed – aggressive, intrusive, toxic, complicit, envious, sympathetic, admiring, intelligent, insightful, sweet – not one person asked me about suicide . . . Ninety per cent of my interviewers asked about prizes.’ You might have thought that she would find this dispiriting but not so. ‘And actually, this suits me fine. There are things that cannot be discussed; can only be done through fiction, and on the page. A book is still a hidden thing. A real book, I mean.’ If play is Howard Jacobson's motive force then Enright's might just be writing on things about which no questions can be asked.

Sarah Hall, Man Booker shortlisted in 2004, has also been reflecting on the experience. ‘The Electric Michelangelo was published when I was 30. I had no idea what was going on – I was so green. No one really schools you in the experience and I hadn’t been involved in the scene because I’d been living in America . . . It was fun but it was slightly overwhelming as well. I loved literature but I didn’t really understand what getting on the shortlist meant until afterwards.’

Another shortlistee, Karen Joy Fowler (2014, We Are All completely Beside Ourselves) has just been named on the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Writing. The biennial prize, worth £25,000 and run by the University of Warwick, is open to any form of writing and this year's theme was ‘Instinct’. So it it not hard to see why Fowler's chimpanzee-infused story made it on to the list. The winner will be announced in November.