STIRRING IT UP
On the eve of his Australian appearances, Booker winner Marlon James tells Rosemary Neill why he challenges the prevailing publishing aesthetic
Just weeks after he won the Man Booker Prize, the world’s best-known fiction award, Marlon James let rip about the prevailing prejudices and preferences of the literary scene. The Jamaican author, whose Booker win in October made international headlines, was himself incubating a fresh batch of news stories.
In a provocative Facebook post, the 45-yearold Jamaican writer claimed authors of colour were being put under pressure to write novels that appealed to older, middle-class, white women. James argued fiction that was “astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui’’ had become “porn’’ for certain high-profile publications. “And though we’ll never admit it,’’ he wrote, “every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story.’’
Responses on the social media site ranged from ringing endorsement — “white women are the next white men,’’ riffed one user — to a stinging riposte from US author Robb Forman Dew. A former National Book Award winner, Forman Dew said James’s post was “insulting and offensive to all women writers’’. She added: “You need to name the writer or writers, those bored, white elderly women, whose writing you think of as ‘ porn for certain magazines’. Otherwise you’re simply sounding grandiose, whiny, petulant and like you’re about 15 years old.’’
In an exclusive interview with Review, the latest Booker Prize winner doesn’t sound like a teenager; instead, he emphasises how his Facebook commentary was targeting a publishing aesthetic or archetype, rather than individual authors. The tell-it-like-it-is writer, who will appear at the Sydney and Brisbane writers festivals next week, says he wrote his contentious post after US author Claire Vaye Watkins penned an essay claiming female writers had to pander to older white males in order to be published. “I thought, ‘That’s interesting because writers of colour feel that they sometimes have to pander to white women; that there is a sensibility that this is a primary audience, 60 per cent of the readership audience, and when somebody says your book is not accessible, they mean it is not accessible to white women.’
“When people [in publishing] say, ‘I don’t see an audience for your book’, they mean, ‘We don’t think white women will read it.’ It’s something nobody really says but everybody knows. Recent industry figures have proved this point.’’ The author of the 686-page Booker-winning epic, A Brief History of Seven Killings, adopts a conciliatory tone as he speaks down the line from Minnesota in America’s midwest. Now based there, James has retained his distinctively Jamaican accent, with its voluptuous rolling Rs and almost musical upward inflections.
“Nobody’s in this business to be racist,’’ he points out. “Nobody is in this business to not be fair or diverse. But there’s no question it happens. Ask any writer of colour about the discussion about their book cover. Actually, [this trend] even sells white women short, because they’re reading my book, they’re reading all sorts of really interesting fiction. We have this idea of this literary but not particularly adventurous reader who can’t handle violence or doesn’t want to go into a deep discussion about race.’’ It’s “an aesthetic we need to talk about’’, he insists.
In the past, James has said this aesthetic was “probably’’ the reason his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected an ego-shrivelling 78 times before it was published in 2005. In a rueful tone, he implies that he again encountered this overpowering “middle-style’’ sensibility when trying to publish his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a rebellious female slave born on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 1700s. “My previous novel,’’ he says pointedly, “was accepted by Riverhead [the American pub- lisher of A Brief History of Seven Killings] but it was rejected by everybody else. Even with slavery, we do want our story put in a very sort of manicured and distanced and some sort of palatable way or, to bring back that word, accessible — which is a pretty ludicrous thing to say about atrocity.’’
Needless to say, James’s latest novel has a profoundly different aesthetic to the prose style he feels has come to dominate contemporary fiction: there are far more than seven murders in A Brief History of Seven Killings. The novel opens in Kingston’s violence-saturated ghettos in the mid-1970s; just a few pages in, we meet Bam-Bam, a child gangster who has witnessed the murder of his parents, including the sexual assault of his father. He commits his first murder at 13. “Me did want it more than anything,’’ says this underage killer, who has already told us that “killing don’t need no reason’’.
James draws heavily on real events and on Jamaican Patois (a widely-spoken Creole) for his narrative. Initially, the novel revolves around the attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. Marley, his manager and Marley’s wife, Rita, were shot by several gunmen two days before the singer was due to give a concert that was meant to be a reconciling and defining moment in the deeply politically divided country. Marley — referred to as The Singer in James’s story — recovered (as did the other two victims) and gave the concert, but fled the country afterwards.
The attempted murder of one of the 20th
Marlon James experienced rejection before recognition