Janice Harayda, proprietor of One-Minute Book Reviews, former books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle , does NOT like Lloyd Jones's Booker Prize-front-runner, Mister Pip. The nub of her complaint: Jones writes for third-grade readers. Here's her evidence:
How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.
Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip
For example: if you reproduce the experiment with May Sinclair's masterpiece, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, you'll also get odd numbers. For example, chapter 2 is apparently written at a 2nd-grade reading level. Now, no second grader on this earth could make heads or tails of Sinclair.
Later on, Harayda claims that:
He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7
But this really does compare apples with limes. Victorian expectations of prose were so different from modern ones. The idea that one needed the equivalent of a modern 10th-grade education to grasp Dickens just doesn't mesh with the reality of 19th literacy practices.
Mister Pip may well not be the best choice for the Booker Prize--I've not read all the finalists, and so can't say anything with confidence--but this is a remarkably thin objection (especially since Harayda ties Lloyd Jones's stylistic choices to racial assumptions!). Plus, it makes my head hurt to think that Microsoft Word's grammar checker--the bane of English professors everywhere--could play any role in literary judgment.