‘The special fate of the novel,’ Frank Kermode has written, ‘is always to be dying.’ In Britain, the terminal state seems indigenous to the culture. Beating our chests about the lassitude of novel writing appears to be a critical tradition in its own right. Our last literary season has long passed, it’s generally agreed. Whatever happened to the British novel? Well, according to folklore it succumbed to the inclement weather of later consumer culture, or the New Philistinism, or the dumbing down of a compromised welfare consensus, or the paralysing legacies of modernism or a post-imperial loss of status. These days, we might lay the blame for the troubled fate of the British novel with the publishers, the prize culture and, latterly, what is being euphemised as the ‘Amazon problem’. But we somehow suspect that these are only the tokens of a more intractable and elusive national malady. That there’s something rotten about British culture that somehow fails to nourish the writing and reading of new fiction.
See, for example, the response of one writer, currently fêted in academic Europhile circles, who we voxpopped about new British fiction for this piece: ‘I’m not sure I have anything to say. I didn’t know there was any.’ Disingenuous hauteur or self-possessed national self-dispossession? Is this now ritualised disavowal of the new in British fiction merely an empty but unexamined myth ripe for explosion, or are there real but more obstinate problems in nurturing innovative fictional writing in Britain? If so, do the problems lie with the writing, the perception of the writing, or with the national culture that frames production and reception of the writing? Or do the problems begin somewhere else altogether? Our refusenik jabbed his index finger at the problem and then shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Did he wish to deny his own status as an innovator, or his identity as British, or is he the self-styled exception that proves the rule?
In a culture where all too often literary ‘innovation’ is read as ‘degeneration’, where the experimental novelist is viewed as a case of narcissistic personality disorder, and where the new is identified with a ‘creeping’ cosmopolitanism that dilutes the local produce, the very idea of British innovative fiction comes to sound like an oxymoronic supplement – a kind of pharmakon – to the idea of the moronic inferno. Though postmodernism only ever reared its head disguised as a kind of indigenous contested empiricism – like arguments for the existence of the Loch Ness monster or Tony Blair’s sincerity – its spectral afterlife is now source for lingering embarrassment within literary academia: pomo sold out, went commercial, went moronic, got down with the dodgier intimates of the inferno.
Academic literary critics attempting to push the case for a rejuvenated new British novel tend to sidestep the problem of the oxy and are anxious to avoid being tarred by the moronic. So they reframe the new in the terms of someplace or sometime or something else, most often the ‘neo-modern’ or the ‘late modern’ or the ‘anxiously modern’. Or they have a field day with riffs on the ‘new realism’: hysterical, hyper-, contested, problematised, paranoid and dirty – but hardly ever contemporary. Peter Ackroyd wrote in 2001 about the way in which British novelists were now beginning to present reality as ‘uncomfortable, as being demanding . . . less open to conventional habits of narration and description’ and about how we are ‘continually being made aware of the oddness of the ordinary, the menace and brutality which is behind the conventional political and social worlds’. Groping for a suitable nomenclature to append to the new writing, however, he ends lamely, albeit with characteristic disavowal of ownership: ‘You might, I suppose, call it the new realism – paranoid realism.’
Soft-centred liberals all, we British seem shackled either to the safety of the readymade category, or the already canonised, or to the comfortably quotidian. Our peculiar creed is mortally suspicious of untrammelled aestheticism, endlessly asserting the primacy of content over form. In accounts of British writing, even now – long after such a thing could be anything other than a rather quaint anachronism of an old culture war – the avant-garde features as a kind of bogeyman. One whose dandified aestheticism belies a questionable politics, a moral compass gone awry; who must be beaten back by decency and common sense. Literary experiment still tends to be perceived as a pernicious form of French ‘flu’: of course we should still be bloody grateful for the English Channel, separating, as it does, steady, dependable old Blighty from that kind of thing.
A new, more ‘patriotic’ British citizenship test requires those seeking permanent residency in Britain to answer examination questions on Shakespeare, Dickens and Hardy. Without intending to revive that old chestnut of the British cultural studies of the eighties – all those debates about the national culture and the avowed ‘greatness’ of Shakespeare, Dickens and Hardy as Arnoldian touchstones of value – we still feel a kind of weary bafflement that official sanction should once again be given to the idea that learning a soundbite Shakespearian chakra might offer a quick route to cultural assimilation, or to what is considered most vigorous and most valuable about living in a new as well as an old country. Is this really the best they can do? A mercantilist visionary, a nineteenth-century Christian humanist, an agrarian fin-de-siècle melancholic?
But we no longer live even in an age of mechanical reproduction. We live in a post-industrial, neo-corporate, trans-national world of globalised forces where locating yourself in the particularities of a specific time and place requires more than rote learning the decontextualised soundbites of English literary tradition. Contemporary Britain, like the United States and the nations of Europe and Asia, is now a country with complex interconnections across the globe, through the circuits of international finance, the networks of the new corporate governance and management, and the social networks of the new media. Some of our newest fiction negotiates a path through this entanglement of the local and the global with exuberant style and an almost forensic eye for the way in which the experiential nuances of imagination, perception, memory and dream are all shaped by a culture, a place, a moment and memory. Shakespeare is not the only British inventor of New Worlds. If you were looking for the ‘state of the nation’ in British writing, you might put down Henry V and set aside for a moment Tess of the d’Urbervilles. You might, admittedly, linger over Hard Times, but you’d be better advised to turn to the occult histories of David Peace, for example, for their reflection of a nation struggling to come to terms with the very worst of its recent past, or to Nicola Barker, whose salty, Rabelaisian bizarrerie offers a truly democratic, and ordinarily strange, picture of Britain.
The British writer-critic James Wood, now distinguished Harvard professor and unacknowledged legislator of the fiefdom of contemporary fiction, has done much to consolidate the history of British literary fictional decline. Initially drawing useful ballast from Hugh Kenner’s lament for a ‘sinking island’ after the demise of literary Modernism, his trans-Atlantic prognostications drew further scaffolding from post-colonial critics’ version of the Great Aetiolation. Jed Esty has written the best-known account, but in framing it as yet another Empire Writes Back story, he places any reader in the inevitably compromised position of seeming, churlishly, to Write Back to an Empire That is Writing Back, and seeming, therefore, to collude with Empire. One of the official histories of the retreat from heroic, British ocean-going ambition, the Imperialist triumphalism anatomised in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Esty’s account sees Imperial greatness now stranded in a stagnant backwater, a kind of Kenneth Grahame messing about on the river, with Ratty, Badger and Mole, dabbling with the ducks in the safe rivulets of English pastoral. In this account, Forsterian lyrical realism established itself as the British Way of Fiction by turning British into English. Though Forster may have barely registered the sinking and the shrinkage of the nation in 1910, he noted all too well that its hub, its capital, floated vertiginously on a ‘sea of porridge’ thickened with foreign capital. Forster’s answer was to exchange the hub for the heart and to recommend a quiet nativist retreat to the English Country House, the village pageant, with a dash of Pagan or Gothic mystery, and the occasional hint of German Romanticism.
Zadie Smith, kicking her heels on the way to the Atlantic, recently paid homage to the vision in her transatlantic novel, On Beauty (2005). A caricature, of course. Yet the Kenner-Wood-Esty case is curiously borne out in unlikely places. There is abundant evidence that our innovative writers – in a softer version of Eliotic European-Christian-Greco-Buddhist re-fashioning – have collaborated with it, seeming to need psychologically to eschew the allegiances and associations of ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’ and to assert the innovator aspect of their identities through self-conscious association with the Continental or the Transatlantic: one thinks here not only of Eliot’s editorship of The Criterion, but of Murdoch’s homage to Queneau and Beckett in her first novel; Trocchi and Brooke-Rose’s love affair with French intellectual culture; Spark’s with the Catholicism of Maritain rather than Newman; A. S. Byatt’s avowal of herself as a European; Martin Amis’s love-hate relationship with America and American writers such as Bellow and Roth; Zadie Smith’s aforementioned looking back through the lens of all things cross-Atlantic (hip-hop, rap and David Foster Wallace). Similar tendencies are evident in some of the most interesting and vigorous new writers such as Tom McCarthy whose novels resonate with the Beckettian, the phenomenological and the existential, or in Alan Hollinghurst and Adam Thirlwell, who embrace an aristocratic, Euro-transatlantic lineage of James and Nabokov, Edmund White and Milan Kundera. Without exception, of course, all these self-avowedly ‘cosmopolitan’ writers marry with and promiscuously blend the foreign with the indigenous, the international with the demotic – but what seems to fix their identity in their own eyes and ours is their avowed association with cultures and traditions that are not British.
Some British writers seem to be getting over the hang up: they borrow and read and allude with ease to what Rushdie refers to as the ‘sea of stories’ and they write happily of the Isle of Dogs, of Shepperton, of Luton, the London Orbital, the East End, the lowlands and blackened wastelands of the industrialised Midlands, lives lived in back to back streets, on New Build Infotechland estates, remote Scottish islands, and the endless out-of-town shopping malls of the New Britain. This is a marked change from our parochial literary past. Take for example Kazuo Ishiguro’s oft-pronounced sense of the difficulties of escaping the provincialism of British fiction in the seventies, the feeling of Britain’s increasing marginalisation in world-politics, a geographic isolationism so evident that it seemed impossible to imagine that literary value could not be part of the general ‘shrinkage’. British writers felt that the Big Events were happening elsewhere; interesting fiction was bound to follow; the balance of powers was shifting.
His own novel The Unconsoled of 1996 was a brilliant rendition of the dangers and seductions of ‘going International’ as a way of escaping this threat of parochialism (interestingly also the theme too of Adam Thirlwell’s more recent novel of that name). The Unconsoled is a psychomachia of the newly professionalised cosmopolitan artist struggling to maintain a fierce public relations ‘schedule’ with pressures on him to perform his art and exercise a telescopic ambassadorial philanthropy. On yet another tour, he finds himself in a strange space of nowhere, an international hotel, in an unnamed place, at an unnamed time, somewhere in the middle of Europe. He wrestles too with a landscape awash with material projections of his own autobiographical memories, fantasies, dreams and fears. Surely a figure for the new professionalised and internationalised writer, Ryder bumps up against the ghosts of his past and the buried and split-off alters of himself, in a landscape built out of hints and glimpses of The Waste Land, Ariadne on Naxos, Escher’s drawings, the films of Bergman and the Coen brothers, German Romanticism, Nietzsche and Freud, the traditions of the Mittel-European Volk.
Similarly, literary modernism, which for so many years was the straw man of a British distrust of intellectualism, has in recent times seen its stock rise. On the publication of Umbrella in 2012, Will Self confessed that for all his previous excursions into the demotic and the grotesque, he’d really always been a closet modernist. Umbrella, he says, with its four hundred pages of unbroken stream of consciousness, is the book he wanted to write all along. Self’s belated coming out is a measure of the extent to which the prejudices that were rife amongst modernism’s first- and second-generation legatees – C. P. Snow, Kingsley Amis, The Movement poets et al. – had persisted well into the closing decades of the twentieth century. That stereotype of modernism as a toothless old crone comfortably installed, decades before, at the centre of Establishment good taste and none-too-threatening when busied with manifesting fevered daydreams of some prelapsarian Edwardian past – but all too susceptible to fifth columnist tendencies – was not easily shifted. As late as 1992, John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses conspiracy-theorised the Modern’s apparent systematic and pre-meditated attack on mass culture.
Now, after the fag end of pomo, modernism seems to be having a moment. As the early years of the twenty-first century categorically fail to deliver anything like the extraordinary flowering of artistic energies that emerged during the first decades of the twentieth, writers and critics (and publishers, with all the entrepreneurial spirit of the original Moderns) are beginning to reinvest in modernism’s achievements. In some cases, it’s being reinvented anew on the same terms as the old prejudices, welcomed back as modernism-without-the-menaces, thoroughly domesticised and with the sting of literary experimentation removed – Smith’s On Beauty we’ve already mentioned, but see also Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Ian McEwan famously declared against the ‘dead hand of modernism’, in fear, presumably, of that avant-garde bogeyman, as if, as China Miéville has commented, ‘the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo’. But even McEwan has written a ‘modernist’ novel, Atonement – if only to indict and rewrite modernism for its dereliction of duty.
For others, however, it’s being returned to as an unfinished project, as a fundamental turning point that British culture, ostrich-like as ever, seems to have missed. Gabriel Josipovici’s recent kulturpessimismus polemic, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010) condemns a buttoned-up Englishry that he sees as dreary and anecdotal, unable to distinguish between reality and l’effet de réel; one that has consistently misunderstood the modernist project. To ignore the avant-garde, says Tom McCarthy, whose own critical success as a novelist is testament to a renewed appetite for modernism, ‘is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin’. But about the novels yielded by this twenty-first-century modernist impulse – Self’s Umbrella and McCarthy’s own C, for example, which have been breathlessly heralded as a kind of modernism après la lettre – there is something of the Sealed Knot. These are, inevitably, not modernist novels as such (and how could they be?) but novels about modernism. Ones that adopt its pre-existing codes, tropes and conventions for the sake of nostalgia – which, it bears repeating, doth not modernism make. The category of modernism, ever loose to the point of unwieldy, increasingly seems to mean a ‘better class’ (read: borrowed from the isms of the European avant-garde) of literary allusion. Or it is deployed merely to denote a sense of solidity, of seriousness, of authenticity, or of difficulty.
For Josipovici, what has been crucially ignored by British book culture is the ways in which modernism represents the ‘coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities’ and will therefore ‘from now on, always be with us’. Thing is, to a certain extent, it always has. Josipovici, McCarthy and co. seem to be relying upon the same bowdlerised version of British literary history as their adversaries. In fact part of the problem for the serious literary novelist in Britain has actually often been the difficulty of getting over Modernism. Not just as a problem of production, but one of reception too. The new experimental writer was once almost inevitably going to be dubbed the new Beckett or Kafka or Joyce. Once modernism was set up as introspective and concerned with the ‘dark places of psychology’, to use Woolf’s description, writers of the forties like Green, Bowen and Compton-Burnett saw the challenge as finding a way to eschew the assumed ‘inward turn’ in order to create worlds through dialogue, expressionist rendition, behaviourist technique and phenomenologies of perception that blurred memory and perception, inner and outer voices, hierarchies of narration.
Crucial to this was the intuitive novelistic recognition (spelt out later, philosophically, by both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) already powerful in Bowen and Green, that feeling is not always, most often not in fact, felt; feeling is most often experienced as the feeling-tone or mood that seems more the attribute of a world or a scene: the vibrancy of backlighting, shadows, edges, colours, the rhythm and pace of a world made in words. Perception is style, as Martin Amis has insisted, but perception is also style that unconceals, tacitly and obliquely, a world and, through a process of reverse introjection, a self. That the world exists for me as my world and that I exist for myself, is what Sartre refers to as ipseity. The feeling that I don’t exist, the loss of a tacit sense of self-presence, that I don’t inhabit my body or the world, is the feeling-tone pervasive in fiction since the seventies but first captured as part of a new inhospitable and corporate world in Camus’ The Stranger. Meursault cannot feel at all, but his world is conveyed through one of the most powerful and distinctive ‘feeling-tones’ in modern fiction (Amis, incidentally, uses the word in Time’s Arrow in a similar attempt to write the Nazi soul). This mode of disconnection in its blank, or hyper-reflexive, or comically disjunctive form – that begins with Dostoevsky, Kafka, Musil and Beckett – has been a major orientation of twentieth-century literary fiction in Britain, but is barely remarked upon in the general preoccupation with making fine discriminations between realism and modernism and late modernism and postmodernism.
It is the very self-consciously executed modus vivendi of McCarthy’s Remainder. Take the Watt-like scene with the carrot in the physiotherapy clinic: ‘I closed my fingers round the carrot. It felt – well, it felt; that was enough to start short-circuiting the operation. It had texture; it had mass. The whole week I’d been gearing up to lift it, I’d thought of my hands, my fingers, my rerouted brain as active agents, and the carrot as a nothing – a hollow, a carved space for me to grasp and move. This carrot though, was more active than me: the way it bumped and wrinkled; how it crawled with grit.’ Like Ryder, this protagonist is another who conceives of himself as an artist; this novel too – like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black or Hollinghurst’s less overtly experimental The Line of Beauty or Smith’s On Beauty – is a disquisition on the place of art in a commodified world.
Here a Platonic intentionality – but it could as well be Romantic – attempts to materialise its vision through various corporate networks of facilitation and, in the process, exposes the dangerous and mechanistic splitting of mind, body, and world that lurks in the Platonic and the Cartesian and is now generalised over Britain in the corporate world of reality management. McCarthy’s twenty-first-century Frankenstein inhabits and acts out a hyper-reflexive world of ‘cool’ where money is able to hire an army of networked agents, project managers and special-effects workers specialised in the materialisation of corporate ‘vision’ as the already confabulated memories viewed as the remaining source of the idea of a soul. Like Ishiguro’s, McCarthy’s novel too is also about fiction as compensation – a settlement – that undoes itself as it points up all those losses and holes in the real. It is a world where performance is all, and weariness, the weariness of the self, has long set in; where a Beckettian akrasia is now a circuit-disconnect between wiring and neurotransmission in the brain and wiring and neurotransmission to the muscles of the body. It is a world where the pre-reflexive has been almost entirely replaced by the management of the event and the orchestrated confabulation of the ‘real’ as memory, dream and perception.
Remainder has made its mark, perhaps, because it so exquisitely connects the metafictional with the neo-corporate with our revived interest in the phenomenology of perception and imagination and feeling. How does a novelist preserve the anagnosia that is at the heart of practical daily living, the tacit knowing that eludes language? How do you do it in words? And how do you use those words to expose a world where words have been betrayed into the service of a coercive management and production of a kind of emptied out real: the new management protocols of event production, performance monitoring and the corporate scripting of the real as ‘cool’? Perhaps the really new realism is that we turn to fiction to experience the feeling of the real. Maybe it’s to this that James Wood refers when he defines ‘novelistic intelligence’ as the capacity to invoke the ‘reachably real’. Maybe he’s not just propounding the rightful function of the novel as merely fictional shadow-play. But somehow we doubt it. Nonetheless, this takes us somehow beyond the postmodern.
In our obsessions with modernism, postmodernism, realism, neomodernism, late modernism, the hysterical, the paranoid, the hyper- and the ever ‘new’ realism, perhaps we have forgotten that a major strength of the British novel has always lain in this kind of phenomenological, often semi-expressionist rendition and self-conscious rehearsal of the building and dismantling of imaginary worlds and the fabulation of a sense of the real. It is there in Sterne’s ironic laying bare of the sentimentalist claims for the novel at the beginning of the era of political economy, or in Woolf’s dissemination of mind through the complex representation of phenomenologies of perception, memory and imagination, or in Muriel Spark’s wicked way of estranging us from our lived and assumed modes of estrangement as she takes a willed detour round the sentimental to restore us to a proper empathy with the poor, the marginalised and excluded.
Without this altered perception of literary history, the fifties will continue to be written up as a disappointing and unambitious return to or collapse back into middle-of-the-road social realism: ignoring the surrealism of A. L. Barker, the comic and haunting expressionism of late Green, the hyper-reflexive strangeness of Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome, the Tourettish and grotesque mimicry that makes up much of Amis’ Lucky Jim, the Wittgensteinian reflection on and enaction of solipsism that is William Golding’s Pincher Martin, the dispersed, disconnected consciousness that engages the experience of factory life in Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or the comic suburban grotesque of William Sansom’s brilliant novel, The Body. Writers such as Beryl Bainbridge, Doris Lessing, early McEwan, Murdoch, Spark, Ballard, Kelman, Burgess, all cut their teeth as part of this trajectory; the legacy extends to McCarthy, Barker, Peace, Self and many others.
To accept this alternative picture is surely to take on board the possibility that there are outward-looking but native traditions of experiment that exceed the usual accounts of the so-called inward turn of modernism, or the turning inside out of fictional convention in the postmodern, or the insider-outsider, Empire Writes Back, double perspectivism of the post-colonial. There is a native version of phenomenology and it flourishes in our fiction; surrealism, expressionism and blankness rub along with comic extravagance, linguistic exuberance and a Todorovian kind of fantastic, happily mingling natural with supernatural and the spiritual and transcendental with the weird and wacky. A kind of British bizarrerie.
Yet, the story of the decline of the nation tacked onto the fortunes of the novel, the academic obsession with historical and stylistic placing and categorisation, even a kind of lingering Leavisism that sees art primarily as a guide to the moral or the good life, all create problems for the perception, reception and encouragement of aesthetic newness in Britain. The self-induced dispossession of national identity so marked in our literary culture seems, well, British. And it often feels remarkably difficult to avoid the self-fulfilling pressure of the stereotype. Turn to the American writer Jonathan Franzen’s recent apologia for his own style of autobiographical fiction, for example, and there’s no hint of such identity problems: ‘When I write’, he says, ‘I don’t feel like a craftsman influenced by earlier craftsmen who were themselves influenced by earlier craftsmen. I feel like a member of a single, large virtual community in which I have dynamic relationships with other members of the community, most of whom are no longer living. As in any other community, I have my friends and I have my enemies. I find my way to the corners of the world of fiction where I feel most at home, most securely but also provocatively among my friends.’ Franzen’s place is comfortably globetrotting round the worlds of fiction in his head: the world of fiction as a world of story-worlds and not promotional tours, publicity launches and national book culture.
But a question remains, perhaps, whether there was actually a falling off during many and various periods which commentators have identified as their literary annus horribilis. In a now infamous editorial (of 1993) to the literary magazine, Granta, Bill Buford blamed the word ‘British’ itself for poisoning the wells of talent: ‘a grey, unsatisfactory, bad-weather kind of word, a piece of linguistic compromise’. In a landscape (then) beginning to seem more refreshed by the voices of the trans-national, the migrant and the diasporic, the idea of ‘British’, however, for Buford, seemed to hang in the air like a toxic miasma, stymieing progress and the cultivation of the new. ‘British’ was a bad spell; no longer a description of the real. ‘I still don’t know anyone who is British. I know people who are English or Scottish or Northern Irish (not to mention born in Nigeria but living here or born-in-London of Pakistani parents and living here . . . or born-in-Nigeria-but-living-here-Nigerian-English).’ But Buford too (also an American) now seems strangely hung up on the Kenner account, convinced that the only means of renewal still depended on Imperial powers, now in reverse as the Empire Wrote Back.
Though there is no necessary connection between the luminosity of events in history and the significance and value of artistic representation, literary critics seem curiously attached to this view of things. They are driven perhaps by different concerns than writers themselves, concerns to do with historical placing, cultural trajectories, political interventions, real or imagined, and less so with the nitty-gritty of that incredibly difficult task of imagining and making a world. If we literary critics thought more like novelists and less like historians or sociologists, perhaps we might begin to see that the fifties consisted of more than Angry Young Men or deferential genuflections in bicycle clips. Perhaps we might begin to do justice to the immensely variegated and innovatory work of that decade and perhaps we might see the fifties as a good place to begin to explode the Kenner and Co. myth of inevitable decline? Similarly, perhaps, the 1980s had more on offer than a political imagination fired up by Margaret Thatcher or the Empire Writing Back or Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives. Perhaps even the 1970s, as the Age of No Style, had styles that awaited a hermeneutic imagination more attuned to factories than flares, ghosts than governments, Granny rock than Glam rock (Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing perhaps as against Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow).
Writers are freer than critics to ignore the strictures of periodisation, the interminable debates about location and positioning. They can stick their necks out more freely – aren’t they meant to? – without alienating an ‘interpretive community’ or being excluded from the academic Research Exercise – the six-yearly cull of academic ‘research’ imposed by a national government stingy on higher education funding but generous to the point of silliness with the provision of League Tables: ‘I’ve never understood the categorisation of postcolonial writing. I’ve been sent papers where I’m talked about as a postcolonial novelist, but I’m never sure about the definition. Does ‘postcolonial’ mean writing that came out in the postcolonial era? Or does it have to come from a country that used to be part of an empire, and which, after the colonies started to devolve, changed into an independent state? Or does it mean writing by people who don’t have white skins . . . Whether somebody is postcolonial seems to be defined by the writer’s biography rather than by their writing, and that’s what makes me very suspicious of postcolonial writing as a category.’
Ishiguro voices something often obscurely felt but ne’er so well expressed – or, more likely, ne’er dared to be expressed, at least by academic critics forced to keep one eye on political and the other on professional correctness. What if novels are primarily now read as ways out of loneliness as Jonathan Franzen has recently averred? Does that make them less difficult to write? Or less political? Doesn’t that entail trying to understand and find ways to represent, analyse and imaginatively transform the sources of our sense of contemporary disaffection or lack of or skewed affect? Historicisation in fiction is rooted in the singularity of a story world, created through a process of formal imagination and craft. If we make fiction ‘piggyback’ too much on history, as Ishiguro suggests later in the same interview (2012), ‘it leads to the preservation of mediocre books whilst some brilliant books are forgotten because they don’t fit the clear historical model.’ We’ve persisted in drawing upon a textbook version of literary history, at the expense of engaging fully with the realities of literary practice. And insofar as such a model ever could anywhere, the one that bisects the twentieth century more-or-less down the middle, dividing its paper assets between the categories of modernism and postmodernism – drawing a discreet veil over a mid-century ‘return to realism’ which we prefer not to talk about – has never comfortably applied here. Sometimes new mutations, hopeful monsters, struggling to push their way out of blighted soil are trodden over by the love affair with historical frames or correctness.
Yet, despite the successive incursions of threads, pockets and outcroppings of the experimental and the reality of a more variegated literary history than ‘official’ accounts almost always offer, the mainstream picture of the British novel is still dominated by the idea of a time-worn ‘English style’. Colm Tóibín recently characterised the ‘quintessential English novel of our age’ as ‘well made, low on ambition and filled with restraint, taking its bearings from a world that Philip Larkin made in his own image’. Zadie Smith, in her essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ speculates on the future of fiction in English by way of reviews of novels by latter-day realist, Joseph O’Neill, and of Tom McCarthy as the great hope for British avant-garde writing. She finds O’Neill’s is the road most travelled. His ‘breed of lyrical Realism’ (there we go again) has ‘had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked’. Although Smith specifies the Anglophone novel, her view seems more narrowly applicable to fiction in Britain. At the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 2012, China Miéville spoke of the English novel’s ‘remorseless prioritisation . . . of recognition over estrangement’. The timeliness of Ali Smith’s revival of the old literary chestnut of style versus content at the same event is perhaps testament to the paucity of our thinking about what novels are and what they can do.
We’ve had the good grace to export this ethic in the views of James Wood, ‘the finest literary critic writing in English today’, (as is customary to append). His pleas for reason and decency against a pervasive American fetish for vulgar stylistics, for those ‘very “brilliant” books which know a thousand things but do not know a single human being’, issue weekly from the pages of the New Yorker. For in Britain, where, as we’ve seen, the state of the novel is more likely to be closely pegged to the state of the nation, fiction has been obliged to provide a repository for stable truths and social order. ‘Englishness’ (very rarely ‘Britishness’) has remained a major preoccupation in our fictions. Novels have long been burdened with providing the sense of spiritual coherence that social commentators insist we so sorely lack despite, or, in fact, because of, an increasingly dispersed and devolved national culture.
In 2012, the summer of the British monarch’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics tested an uneasy, class conscious, and ambivalent relationship with a nationalism reinterpreted as national pride and belonging that many British people are still loathe to admit. Those celebrations follow on from the previous summer’s outbreak of violence, raids, looting and riots that saw major areas of the city of London in flames. Interspersed with BBC coverage of Wimbledon, a new Shakespeare season and pictures of the Olympic torch on its progress round the towns of Britain were documentaries and narratives of the mostly 16-24 year-old rioters now released from prison and facing life with disabling criminal convictions. As for nationalism, as Stefan Collini writes, we seem always to have insisted that such a primitive – and historically troublesome – impulse is something that happens elsewhere. The issue has long been a vexed one here. The World War II-era injunction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become the atavistic mantra of Recession Britain visible everywhere from towels to teacups. It appeals to our mythic image of ourselves; the ‘blitz spirit’ with which we might weather this new Age of Austerity. But as our ‘collective symbol’ the Union Jack has an uncomfortable double existence. It is similarly, ‘harmless’ pageantry, a Little England party favour, but it is also historically loaded and queasily evocative, making us instinctively – and often unquestioningly – uneasy.
We have not lost our mania for manifesting the particularity (and the peculiarity) of being English. The metaphysics of Eliot and Leavis might have gone lukewarm for many and stone cold for most, but we still continue to attempt to conjure a coherent whole from less than the sum of its parts. But smoggy mill towns, red pillar boxes and fried breakfasts of an English particularist like Orwell have, however, given way to rather more ersatz assemblages. The cover of the 2012 Britain-themed issue of Granta depicts a chipped bone china teacup with its handle wrenched off. This, neatly, is the ‘Broken Britain’ of tabloid and Tory parlance. The nation recorded within is peopled with desperate pen-pushers, small-time dealers of recreational pharmaceuticals, missing children, Eastern European lap dancers and timorous lower-league footballers with Lady Chatterley-esque designs upon the groundsman. It’s an urban-pastoral hinterland, hung with a murder-scene gloaming of incipient menace. Abandoned old-New Towns and sink estates, the condemned edifices of post-war utopian dreaming – and of local government corruption – feature heavily. So, too, does a British state of mind governed by shame, repression and lassitude and given to random and not-so-random acts of violence.
Yet it is with these ingredients, the poet and novelist John Burnside argues, that we might put Britain, like Humpty Dumpty, back together again. ‘[H]ome, or identity,’ he suggests, ‘can be found in cultural ruins.’ Britain might be, as self-styled alternative poet laureate Simon Armitage has it, reduced to a ‘shipwreck’s carcass’ and ‘down to its bare bones’, but with the loss of ‘old certainties’ comes the loosening of the old hierarchies too, and with it the possibility for remodelling Britain along more democratic, more egalitarian lines. This, for Burnside, is cause for a ‘tender, if guarded, celebration’: ‘To recognise the new values that emerge from the makeshift is to discover the earliest traces of a new direction, the first tentative steps in a spontaneous remaking of ourselves, the hazy outline of a democratising order that imagination finds in the unlikeliest of places.’ But is this really the cause for (albeit cautious) jubilation? Should a ‘sense of identity’ really come at such a cost? And is celebration really the most appropriate response? Granta’s picture of Britain is not, as it purports to be, an unflinchingly democratic picture of a diverse society, but the finessing of a poverty of many kinds into the picturesque; the requisite local colour now provided by all those on-the-bones-of-their-arse Britons.
Burnside seems at once to under- and over-estimate what art can do. We might now be rather more sceptical about the real-world capabilities of the artistic imagination to ameliorate social injustice. And we might question how effective a model of egalitarianism narrative fiction can be. The iconography of this ‘Broken Britain’ is well on its way to becoming a collection of clichés of ‘Englishness’ that is just as politically malign, cosy and self-satisfied than the old one. Burnside’s is, at least, a very British sentiment: It might be crap but at least it’s ours. For Martin Amis, on the other hand, the appropriate response to a country he recently declaimed for its ‘moral decrepitude’ is satire. His 2012 ‘State of England’ novel, Lionel Asbo, is a parting shot as Amis absconds for America. ‘Who let the dogs in?’ the epigraph asks, in the first of many woefully misjudged (and woefully out-of-date) pop culture references. In the novel, Amis romances Britain’s underclass into a coterie of grotesques that are at once Jerry Springer-generic and farcically bizarre: the single mothers, illiterate bruisers and petty criminals are joined by a glamour model-slash-aspiring poetess, pitbulls raised on Tabasco. The response has been almost unanimously negative; unsurprising since, as once reviewer commented, Amis’s novel amounts to little more than narrative-as-trolling.
Fellow novelist Nicola Barker has been a rare voice in defence of Lionel Asbo, arguing, in her review, that ‘maybe modern England needs offending’. She maintains that thin-skinned Britons might well need this kind of baiting to shake them from their cosy, tea-and-biscuits slumber. Surprising, this, from Barker, since although she was recently puffed as the ‘female Martin Amis’, her own novels engage with the ‘reality’ of living in Britain (whatever that might mean, her fictions always insist on appending) with an authenticity and a sensitivity rarely seen in Amis’. Far from proffering a searing critique of the state of the nation, Barker’s so-called progenitor appears to be in cahoots with a culture that is, in terms of its cruelty and vacuity, already way beyond the poison of his pen. See for example, the ritualised humiliations of uber-franchised reality television or even more so our government, whose economic policymaking in the face of the global economic recession evinces a level of care and sympathy more often seen in the S&M parlour, or indeed, in the public school fagging system with which PM David Cameron is so familiar. ‘We’ (who, us?) have been decadent, chastise the swingeing cuts initiated by the coalition government, and now, inevitably, we must be punished.
It is customary, at this juncture, to segue effortlessly into tentative optimism. To defer to the ‘complexity’ of the situation. To issue disclaimers about the partial view of our presentism. To talk of ‘green shoots’ and ‘possibilities’. This piece, in a sense, is no exception. We suggest that what afflicts the British novel might not be as elusive as it seems. That the problem, in fact, might lie closer to home.
Literary criticism, once envisioned by F. R. Leavis as the ‘humane centre’ of British culture, long since split into the factions of Grub Street and Ivory Tower, and there has been little love lost between the two since Leavis’s heyday. Reacting against this ethical burden, the British literary academy was a keen late adapter to continental theory. Over-eager, in fact; for it was soon accused by novelists of having all but abandoned the novel, having thrown the baby out with the bath water of Leavis and the New Criticism. This caricature of academe is, at least in part, the product of a long-standing British mistrust of ‘Theory’. Yet who could blame literary academics for sexing up the British novel with liberal applications of cool, continental philosophy on hot topics like death and desire; or those who manage to divine an encounter with the Lacanian Real in the po-faced sex-farce (sometimes labelled ‘neo-Victorian’) of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach? But in this era of impact-assessment and quota-fulfilment, the academy’s attempts to grapple with the British contemporary novel have often felt like a will-this-do concession to relevance. Perhaps it would be better advised to modify its attempts to validate its objects of study by overburdening them with demands for relevance to political or government correctness and simply try to lift the longstanding taboo on aesthetic evaluation that might lend its weight to, well, better novels.
The literary press in Britain has eagerly taken up the Leavisite slack, moonlighting as the moral advocate of the self-consciously middlebrow. It exists as the heavily-subsidised, loss-making adjuncts and supplements to newspapers, with the exception of the London Review of Books, funded by its editor’s family trust. Perhaps because of this, as with so much cultural life in Britain, our literary press is all too aware of a public service remit, but is by no means sure of whom its audience might comprise. It addresses an Ideal Reader that is both unapologetically philistine and impossibly highfalutin’. That likes its books ‘serious’ and ‘weighty’, but not ‘dry’ or ‘obscure’ and certainly never to ‘lack heart’. That wants its ethical heuristics trussed up in majestically lyrical prose.
Whilst British literary critics are reverential about the innate value of the (definite article, capital letter) Novel, they remain wholly unconvinced about the broader possibilities of fictional narrative. See, for example, Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan’s take on the ‘novelness’ of novels in The Good of the Novel (2011): ‘One can say, for one thing, that the truth of novels cannot be rendered in any other form; it cannot be abstracted or codified, turned into thesis or proposition. Novelistic truth is not data, not reportage, not documentary, not philosophical tenet, not political slogan. Novelistic truth is dramatic, which means above all it has to do with character… In exploring character, the novel’s key strength is the disclosure of human interiority. To the question, what does the novel do?, we might most pertinently answer: the novel does character, and the novel does interiority.’
Character and interiority; no mention here of the novel’s capacity not just to ‘disclose’ but to expand the remit of human experience, for instance, to offer temporary access to other ways of perceiving. Or of the novel as thought experiment, as a viable form of knowledge all of its own – let alone as a ticket to peak experience at the limits of language. Here – where novels are breathlessly praised for their skilful navigation of our twenty-first-century dilemmas and for the delicate craft of their storytelling – lies what used to be called literary fiction in Britain. E. M. Forster need not have worried about the fate of his ‘little society’ – it is alive and well, at least in the pages of the literary press.
Until the 1970s, new and innovative British fiction could at least count upon its allies in publishing. Back then, ‘good’ books were safeguarded by the support and patronage of swashbuckling, semi-mythical publishing mavericks like John Calder, Marion Boyars and Tom Maschler. Now, in these dark days for the book industry, as the novelist Deborah Levy has commented, ‘There is no way you can send a fierce, exotic and brutally truthful hothead novel out into the British rain in a recession and expect a deal to be on the table with scones, tea and the Daily Mail.’ New books are subject to the bottom line of multinational publishing conglomerates which are rationalising and prioritising as never before. Even the braver editors have the jitters, unwilling to take a punt on those books deemed untested and unmarketable. To emerge from the slush pile now, novels must meet cynical editorial policies which attempt to second guess, on the one hand, the whims of the market by trying to appease some phantasmic lowest common denominator and, on the other, the vagaries of literary prize culture by seeking to appeal to some gold standard of literary ‘good taste’. And, overall, insist on radically underestimating the appetites of the British reading public.
This, then, is the British literary establishment. The perfect pricks, so to speak, to kick against. Or, so you might think. But, in fact, a book counterculture in Britain has been slow to emerge. There are exceptions, without doubt: this very magazine, of course, the newish press And Other Stories, for example, who enjoyed early success with Levy’s Swimming Home, and the imprint Faber Finds is making efforts to put right the wrongs of literary history, and others. But still the little magazines, periodicals and presses of other books cultures (and of poetry) do not exist in such significant numbers here. Tellingly, when The Observer profiled the thriving lit mag scene in 2013, it looked to New York and to n+1, The American Reader and The New Inquiry.
In fact, in Britain, increasingly there’s the sense that new and innovative fiction is beginning to abscond from the realm of the strictly ‘literary’ altogether, and is making for the sunnier and more welcoming climes of the art world. See, for example, the Semina series of experimental texts edited by writer and artist Stewart Home, published by Bookworks, an independent art publisher. Or Visual Editions, which seeks to draw together the art book and the literary text to publish what they call ‘visual writing’ like Adam Thirlwell’s Kapow! and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, alongside a new edition of what is perhaps the ur-text of the experimental novel, Tristram Shandy. Will the art world, then, provide a place for innovative writing to flourish in Britain? Can a home be found for this ailing medium in a milieu that is less hamstrung by misplaced moral and ethical obligations and the strictures of the marketplace (both real and imaginary) and, significantly, is better funded?
And where might this leave British book culture? Despite their differences, writer, critic and academic alike find themselves under threat and compromised – economically and existentially – by the re-structuring and re-development of the new globalised neo-corporatisms, with their token nods to green recycling and New Age recovery, and their sinister and often systematic appropriations of everything from art to the social network to the ‘event’. The work of art exists no longer in a Romantic-Modernist age of mechanical reproduction but in the disseminated and pervasive global networks of the neo-corporate and the new knowledge economy. Being ‘local’ is unavoidably a way of being ‘global’; getting inside the singular consciousness may be less a business of flowing along a stream of consciousness than evoking a structure of feeling of a world that, as Musil discerned long ago, is filling up with men without qualities, men incorporated into the neo-corporate spaces of the new knowledge economy. If postmodernism was a lament for depths lost to late consumer capital, it was always easy prey to charges of mendacious and slippery complicity with the enemy. If we are currently now officially in an ‘interregnum’, past the post and into a new age of ‘re’ – redevelopment, recycling, restructuring, reparation, reconciliation, residue, remainder, remembrance, recession – trying to rebuild foundations, recover roots and re-imagine a future re-connected with a revisioned past, we are also being forced to acknowledge how far past the post we are in other ways too – poised uncertainly but apocalyptically on the brink of environmental disaster and economic collapse. Artistically and imaginatively, though British and stranded on a sinking island, we too inhabit the new world of the globalised and the neo-corporate frozen style that deploys its resources in the professional management and production of the real. There is, quite discernibly, a new climate of seriousness, a sense of ‘growing up’ from postmodernism, but as fears of the death of the author abate that by no means presents new death-threats to the artistic imagination. Innovative and ambitious novels certainly continue to be written in Britain; there might be more of them, and those that there are might be better known, if only there was someone to vouch for them.
This piece features in The White Review Anthology, available to buy here.