Bad minds

The Commonwealth Foundation had commissioned a local publisher to arrange this forum. As the only Trinidadian who had served for three years as a judge on the Commonwealth Book Prize, including 1999 when Salman Rushdie was a finalist and made his first public appearance in India after the fatwa, you might think I’d be a logical choice for such a panel. But you’d be wrong. You see, these discussions require fluency in literary discourse, and I don’t speak twaddle.

Had I been asked, I would probably have done a statistical analysis of comments by Booker Prize judges to show that there are no proper criteria for judging, used Arrow’s Theorem to prove that literary panels will rarely choose the best book, and described how Rushdie reacted when he didn’t win the prize. Last September, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the London Guardian asked a judge from each year to give the inside story of how the winning book was chosen. Over half the judges – 22 – made remarks which revealed that there are no rigorous standards in literary judgements. Even Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which would later be voted the Booker of Bookers, wasn’t the unanimous choice of the judges in1981.

“The Booker has certainly mirrored fashion — the collapse of the empire; post-modernist Victorian pastiche; New Age sentimentality,” one judge said. Another recalled: “The absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism).” And a third: “It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horse-trading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.”

Which brings me to Ken Arrow, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1972. Although he got the prize for his “pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory”, Arrow is best known for his 1948 impossibility theorem, which is a cornerstone of, not economics, but politics. Put simply, the theorem proves mathematically that any election based on “one person, one vote” is fair only when there are two candidates. Add a third or more, and it is likely that a candidate who is no one’s favourite will win. The theorem applies to many areas besides electoral voting, including literary prizes. No wonder that, when South African writer JM Coetzee was declared Best Book winner for his novel Disgrace at the gala ceremony in New Delhi, Rushdie picked up his glass of red wine and took a sip in order to avoid applauding.

So you can see why I wasn’t included on this panel. The organisers may have known that literary people are the least widely-read of all readers, and had I spoken about criteria, theorems and ungracious novelists, the audience might have started throwing peanuts. Besides, in order to contribute to Caribbean literature, you need to be upper-class, Afro, or race-conscious.

I might never have found out this, except for the fact that I’m the only Trinidadian novelist of my generation actually living here. This means that, in respect to literary matters, my name must come up just by force of scarcity. Yet I wasn’t even contacted when a major publishing firm hired a local agent to find someone to write a Caribbean version of the Harry Potter series, despite my childish ways. In similar fashion, a UWI academic once published a book on Indo-Trinidadian writers that, possibly because of my naturally curly hair, contains no reference to my novels. Most recently, a short-story collection by Trinidadian-born writers included my work only because the New York editor asked me to contribute – no joke.

Now it may be that the Trini literati don’t consider me a good writer; and it may be that they’re even right. But I have found most literary professionals (not readers) in this place to be persons of small mind and spiteful spirit. And if unprofessionalism so infects individuals on matters of art, where neither much money and even less power is at stake, imagine how much more pervasive the pettiness is in other arenas, such as politics or business. Far more than imperialism or colonialism or poverty, this is what keeps us Third World.


"Bad minds"

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