From Patrick Ness’s review of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One:

In the endless and in no way tedious debate between lovers of genre and lovers of whatever “literary” fiction is (we can’t define it but we know it when we see it), consider this theory: a book is not a song. A book is the performance of a song. And in that slight distinction may lie the crux of the disagreement.

Genre fiction, literary partisans might say, may indeed have interesting songs, but they tend to be sung by the tone-deaf. […] Literary fiction, on the other hand, is accused by genre lovers of being so concerned with performance alone that it’s devolved into an echo chamber for a diminishing number of elitists.

The Man Booker International Prize  was set up in 2004 to “celebrate” novels translated into English, and each year it reminds me how narrow my reading is. I rarely seek out works in translation, unless they’ve made their way into the canon or ended up on a favourite critic’s must-read list. Last year’s winner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (a book I liked), is the exception that proves the rule. I downloaded it accidentally, started reading it because I had nothing else to hand, and finished it because–well, one ought to finish what one starts.

This year’s shortlist contains a few books I may get around to reading, in defiance of tradition and the laws of probability. First there’s Judas by Amos Oz. According to a review in the Guardian, it combines “a story of error, desire and unrequited love” with “an exploration of the motivation of the titular apostle”. Irresistible. Then there’s David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into A Bar, “a parable-like tale of a repellent Israeli comedian”. We are warned that Grossman’s novel is “neither remotely funny nor an easy read”. High praise indeed.

What does it mean to be wealthy?

In an episode of a sitcom I am trying to forget, a character asks his mother if they are rich. She replies, “No. We work hard for our money. Rich is when your money works for you.”

Many in the UK agree. When Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested on the Today programme that anyone earning above £70,000 per annum is “rich” and should pay more tax, listeners scoffed. The average NHS consultant earns more than £70,000 a year. So does the average barrister with more than 5 years’ experience. But they can’t necessarily afford to send their children to Eton (£37,000 per year), or buy a house in Kensington (average price £3,088,521). Anyone who earns that much is better-off than most, but there’s a difference–a big difference–between having a comfortable middle class income and accumulating enough in assets to be considered wealthy.

It hardly helps that we are surrounded by the super-rich. Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern princes, tech billionaires, popstars . . . turn on a television, open a newspaper, or glance into a toilet bowl in a disused Ukrainian airport and you will find someone richer than you, a Mosasaurus to your Indominus – (or if you prefer, a John Cena to your Mark Wahlberg). When Roman Abramovich was asked in court whether one of his business partners was rich, he replied, “It’s hard for me to say whether someone is a wealthy person or not a wealthy person.” To him we are all equally poor. It’s hard for Mr Abramovich to make pointless distinctions between people who can’t buy Premier League football clubs. And it’s hard for us, the poor folk who live, as it were, in his shadow.

Some are reluctant to call themselves rich even when they are technically millionaires. A 2013 UBS survey found that only 60% of investors with assets greater than $5 million, and 28% with assets between $1 and $5 million, considered themselves wealthy. Perhaps they dare not claim the label lest they are laughed at by passing Third World dictators or summarily deprived of their worldly goods by agents of the Shadow Chancellor. It’s more likely, however, that they equate wealth with a lack of financial constraints. If you want something you can’t afford (a Gulfstream G650, a private militia, or Scarlett Johansson), you don’t feel rich, regardless of how much money you have in the bank.


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