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Read 2015 Man Booker Winner Marlon James’ Denunciation of Adverbs in Fiction

Marlon James-A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven KillingsMarlon James, the Jamaican author who was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize last night, took the opportunity to denounce the use of adverbs in fiction.

The 44-year-old won the award for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictionalised account of a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley.

He is the first Jamaican to win the Booker Prize in its 47-year history.

American author Hanya Yanagihara had been tipped as the favourite to win this year’s award, for her harrowing 700-page epic A Little Life, and James said he was taken by surprise.

“I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win I didn’t write a speech!” he said when he reached the podium.

James spoke about the surreal nature of the evening, and how the Booker Prize had shaped his literary sensibility.

“I just met Ben Okri, and it hit me … the Man Booker Prize is that award you hear about that suddenly increases your library by 13 books.”

In the post-award ceremony press conference, James was asked about his aversion to adverbs, and went on a pretty fantastic rant, part comedy, part writing advice:

I’m waiting for the one reader who says they found an adverb in that novel because I’m pretty sure there isn’t any. I even had a crisis, and like all crisises I took it to Facebook, and I said ‘Help, I had adverbs but one of my characters wants to use one.’ And everybody said, ‘You must respect the character’, and so on. And I put it in, but then I was like, ‘No, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’

What I tell my students when they ask, ‘When can I use adverbs?’ It’s very simple. Become Alan Hollinghurst. Then you can use any adverb you want. Because he is such a master of it. It’s like Nabokov with an adjective.

My jeremiad about adverbs begins here. It’s funny that they are called modifiers, because too often instead of making a sentence clearer they make it more vague. ‘The big muscular horse ran quickly’ will never be better than ‘the stallion galloped’. But we’ll run to ‘ran quickly’ and instead of making the sentence clearer it muddies it.

I’m being slightly hypocritical or contradictory, because what’s funny is that I love adverbs in my non-fiction. If I’m writing reviews, I’ll easily say things like, ‘His performance was frighteningly obscure.’

I just think, for me, there is a resonance in the actuality of a scene that modifiers, literary devices, metaphors, all of which I love, can sometimes ruin. I tell my students all the time, a sunset doesn’t need your help. Just describe it.

James is Associate Professor of English at Macalester College, Minnesota, USA.

A Brief History of Seven Killings was among more than a dozen winners of the 36th annual American Book Awards that celebrate diversity and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction and a Minnesota Book Award. James’ previous novel The Book of Night Women won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

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Image courtesy of the Man Booker Prize


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