The 2013 Booker prize shortlist was released recently, and to my surprise I saw a book on the list that looked appealing: Jim Crace’s Harvest. I’ve never read a Booker prize winner and only read two books ever nominated – both by Margaret Atwood – so I thought it would be interesting to see if the prize functions as any kind of recommendation.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Harvest is a novel supposedly about the period of Enclosure in Britain, when land previously held in common was enclosed and privatized. As far as I understand it, the common view of history (and certainly the one I was taught in school in the UK when they taught this) was that Enclosure was an enormously important and beneficial land reform that improved productivity and wealth, and led to the modernization of Britain. An alternative theory of history that I think has some popularity amongst radical leftists (especially anarchists) and eco-radicals is that Enclosure was an act of theft, in which the wealthy and ruling classes of Britain expropriated land from their tenants, drove them out to form a landless labouring class, and then exploited them as cheap labour. I think there is some truth to this claim, though it needs to be counter-posed against whatever horrors subsistence farming on the feudal commons brought about for the peasantry; certainly when I was taught Enclosure at school in the UK, nobody mentioned sheep – it was presented as a way of improving productivity and the lives of peasants, and presented as having been introduced alongside the agricultural advances of crop rotation.
So I was interested in a novel which explored a social drama against this context, of a village life being rapidly changed through Enclosure. The basic story is summarized at the Picador website:

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .

Told in Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose, Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed. Timeless yet singular, mythical yet deeply personal, this beautiful novel of one man and his unnamed village speaks for a way of life lost for ever.

The story proceeds very quickly from the harvest to the events described above. It is a straightforward plot, viewed through the eyes of a man who slowly gets excluded from his community as events turn nasty. It’s well written and evocative, although one quickly begins to see the technical devices Crace is using, so the prose becomes a bit same-same after a while. This isn’t a bad thing though, since the consistent style and the nature of the imagery are evocative of a late summer in the country of the distant past – you do feel like you’re reading about a different, simpler world of growers and spinners. Crace also manages to very solidly ground the lead character, Thirsk, in the foreground while making many of the villagers distant and washed out figures, not really described in detail and their inner lives hidden, in such a way that you do feel like you stand only with Thirsk, that you are something of an outsider, and that the village has an inner life you don’t understand. I think this is good for looking back at a time that we can’t really understand or feel any common cause with.

However, the book has serious flaws. First and most importantly, the ending is completely unsatisfactory. You don’t find out most of the reasons why most of the things described in the blurb happened, and you certainly don’t get to see any kind of resolution of any of them. Maybe it was Crace’s intention to have 7 days of chaos fall on a village for no reason, to be left unresolved and confused at the end … if so, he’s a punishing and mean writer. I think more likely he thought that he had resolved the story, and didn’t realize he hadn’t at all. Walter Thirsk’s final actions are also incomprehensible and weak, and we don’t see in them what I think Crace intended us to see. The plot is building to an interesting resolution involving several forces – the villagers, the strangers, the two lords and Walter – but instead all these separate threads go basically unresolved (except perhaps the strangers). To the extent that any of these people are built up as characters in the novel (and most aren’t, or drift through it as archetypes), Crace betrays them by showing a complete lack of interest in their fate.
Second, Enclosure plays almost no role in this story. Enclosure does not happen to the village, and the technician charged with the central task of implementing it is treated in such a way as to give the reader the impression that no one is interested in Enclosure and it is not going to happen. We are told that the strangers are fleeing from the enclosure of their own lands but we see no evidence of this, and because we never meet those strangers properly we cannot hear their story of Enclosure or know if their flight was the correct response – maybe they were criminals at home, too? Much of the resistance to Enclosure described in the book is also based on cultural objections, with no deeper political or structural analysis. We don’t hear any hint of empoverishment or land theft, though there is the impression given that some villagers will have to leave; nonetheless the villagers’ objection to Enclosure (described entirely through the opinions of Walter Thirsk) is primarily cultural: they have a way of life they don’t want to change, and they don’t like sheep. I don’t think, given this, that it can be said that “Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed.” There is nothing irrevocable about the enclosure in this book (that doesn’t happen), and the reasons the community is scattered are to do with witchcraft and feudal terror, not enclosure – which most of the community are still ignorant of when they leave. Even the three we supposedly know are on the lam from their previous community are clearly criminals, and could be fleeing for that reason as much as any other. I guess we’re meant to see the interaction between village and strangers as a clash between the new, threatening post-enclosure world and the Britain of the rural past, but I don’t see it, and the villagers respond to the strangers solely on the basis of their foreignness – their response is that of old Britain, and not motivated by (or even aware of) the possibility that these strangers might be a new class of dangerous, land-less worker. There is no political struggle in this book. Which is fine, but I think the role of Enclosure in the story has been completely over-egged.
Finally, this story has no special underlying thread or deeper plot: it is not the case that “something even darker is at the heart of [Walter Thirsk’s] story.” It’s just a tale of stupidity and nastiness on the edge of the earth, and the nastiness is so disconnected from sense and so pointless and stupid that it’s hard to credit on its face, let alone as the surface manifestation of “something even darker.” This is a story of a bad lord and some stupid villagers. Maybe the bad lord has a bigger plot to what he is doing, but we don’t find out because his story is not resolved; and if he does have a bigger plot, it’s clear what it is, and it’s not “something even darker,” it’s just plain old-fashioned viciousness deployed in the economic interests of the ruling class – something the book studiously fails to draw out in any great detail.
So in the end I just can’t see what is special enough about this book to win it a nomination for a Booker prize. It’s just a simple though well-written story about some trouble in a village. What are their criteria? Why is this prize special? Certainly some of the winners look like insufferably self-conscious attempts at literary fiction, and I guess that being on the panel must be unrewarding drudgery if you have to read through 6 or 8 novels desperately trying to be “weighty” without offending anyone. Harvest certainly gave the impression of trying to be weighty and literary without actually having anything resembling a decent plot or systematic under-pinning. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional and it’s certainly not well-crafted.
I’ve noticed that the Booker prize has come in for a fair bit of criticism on the grounds that it is really just a sheltered workshop for a dying and falsely ring-fenced genre, “literary fiction,” and I think I’m inclined to agree. This blogger describes the panel as an “ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel” and bemoans the lack of science fiction or fantasy in the prize. Certainly, looking at the lists of past short-lists and winners it seems pretty clear that the “cartel” are restricting the prize to an in-group of a few authors. For example, the 1985 list includes Doris Lessing, Peter Carey and Iris Murdoch – 50% of the list are past winners or regular short-listers. How is it possible that amongst all the literature of the Commonwealth for a single year, the same three people can end up getting in the top 6? Is the pool of good literature in the Commonwealth really so limited? Iain M. Banks’s The Wasp Factory was released in 1984, and he has published almost every year since – yet he doesn’t appear in a single short list, and I can’t see any evidence that this novel made the longlist either. Similarly Mieville’s best-constructed three works (The Scar, Perdido Street Station and The City and The City) don’t appear, neither does Philip Pullman, Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and of course nothing from the crime and mystery genres. I would say that The Rivers of London is a better work than Harvest, yet nothing like it appears on the short list. As others have observed, this prize exists to police the perimeters of a dying genre of literature, whose purveyors are labouring under the false impression is not a genre, but somehow the essence of fiction. It isn’t – it’s a dull backwater for people who take themselves too seriously.
From next year, the Booker will be opened to American writers, and some see this as the end of the prize. I’m not a big fan of contemporary American fiction, so I don’t see that as a likely outcome, but were the Booker panel to consider science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction then yes, that would be it for the Commonwealth writers – and certainly for British writers. How amusing, then, that a Guardian critic of this decision writes:
When eligibility shifts from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to English-language novels published in the UK, it is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes
Well, whether it’s an economic super-power exerting its literary tastes or a white upper middle class conspiracy theory, we’re not going to see a shift to any kind of recognition of actual quality in literature. At least if the Americans are let in, there might be a chance of introducing a bit of democratic diversity to the judging. Or will there? I bet next year’s prize will contain the same narrow range of “acceptable” lit-fic blandness, and not a whiff of genre fiction in sight. Which is a great thing for all 6 lit-fic authors still plugging away at that stuff, but a shame for all the unsung novelists who write genuinely good stuff that people actually want to read.
At least until it diversifies we can be fairly confident that the Booker prize is a warrant of mediocrity, and avoid wasting money on its nominees …