The Future of British Fiction


Last week saw the issue of the very wonderful Review of Contemporary Fiction’s The Future of British Fiction, edited by Jennifer Hodgson and Patricia Waugh. It is dated Fall 2012 but actually appeared on 23 April. This is, of course, St George’s Day, St George being the patron saint of the English (but definitely not of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish). It was also World Book and Copyright Day. (No, nor did I.) It is also the day that traditionally saw the death of two famous writers, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, though, in fact, neither actually died on that day. Shakespeare did die on 23 April but 23 April according to the Julian calendar not according to the Gregorian calendar, which we now use, according to which he died 3 May. Cervantes died on 22 April and was buried 23 April. (As I am indulging in trivia, I can only think of one other example when two famous people died on a day which had some significance other than their death – 4 July 1826 saw the death of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the second and third US presidents, both dying on the 50th anniversary of the (non-)signing of the US Declaration of Independence (which was actually signed by most (but not all) signatories on 2 August of that year. All of this trivia has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, Cervantes or the future of British fiction.)

Jane Austen - have we not advanced since her?
Jane Austen – have we not advanced since her?

Though the issue is called The Future of British Fiction, it seems to be more about a) the past; b) current non-mainstream fiction and c) English, Scottish (and, to a much lesser degree) post-colonial fiction, with the Welsh and Northern Irish barely getting a look in. Not a great deal about the future. The number starts off with an introduction by the two editors, where they tell us straightaway that this issue is not about the future of British fiction but about British contemporary fiction (sic – I would have said contemporary British fiction but maybe that’s just me). They go on to point out that innovative writing has not been seen either side of the Atlantic over the past forty years, with only a few exceptions (they name Kazuo Ishiguro and Alasdair Gray as examples). They may well be right, though I think it is not quite as simple as that. J G Ballard famously said, in 1971, Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The great majority do not but some do. However, this raises a question I shall discuss below in relation to Stewart Home, namely so what if there has been no innovation in vocabulary, technique and style since Jane Austen?

Michael Gove, Secretary of Education - not a modernist
Michael Gove, Secretary of Education – not a modernist

Waugh and Hodgson go on to cite a British writer currently feted in academic Europhile circles (Tim Pears? Adam Thorpe? completely fictitious in order to make a point, as a former Times journalist and current Mayor of London did with a quote?) who declined their invitation to write about the new fiction in Britain (new? contemporary? future? WTF is it?). He said I didn’t know there was any. That has to be very stupid remark. Authors notoriously often do not read other current fiction but to say there is none (see Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, announced last week) is about as realistic as George Osborne’s economic policies. Note Waugh and Hodgson said new, not innovative where our academically feted author may have a point. They go on to say that postmodernism is no longer fashionable (quite true, though, for most readers, they don’t care whether a novel is pomo or not, they just want to enjoy it) and has been replaced by other -isms, often ending in realism, such as hysterical realism, dirty realism, etc. (again, this is academic talk, not the general reader.) Where they do have a very strong point is showing that, with the current government, we are heading back into the past, including in literature, when there are interesting modern authors in the UK. They go on to point out that many innovative authors in the UK are eschewing Englishness or Britishness but looking to Europe or the US for influence and writing not about Jane Austen’s provinces or the centre of London but the urban fringes.

Not the British future
Not the British future

Though they do not use the word, they do point out that the strength of the British novel in the post-war 20th century is its eccentricity and that its recent failures are because of late consumer culture and New Philistinism, as though philistinism was something that was invented by Margaret Thatcher (she may have promoted it but she certainly did not invent it). The concept of British, which most people do not seem to identify with, also seems to be a problem (but not, I think, for most readers, at least as regards what and how they read). Post-colonialism (whatever it may be – Kazuo Ishiguro is not sure) and novels as a way out of loneliness (hasn’t that always been the case? – ask, yes, Jane Austen) are more grist to their mill, while Colm Tóibin (not British) damns the English style and Zadie Smith hails two writers as the hope for avant-garde British writing – Joseph O’Neill (not British) and Tom McCarthy. And that’s it? Oh dear. And, finally, after twenty pages, on the penultimate page of the essay, they wave hauntology/psychogeography as the way to go. But isn’t that so very much last year? The writers they cite – Will Self, A L Kennedy, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Scarlett Thomas, Nicola Barker and David Peace – have all been writing for at least ten years and, in some cases, more than twenty. All are over forty and two are over fifty.

Pau Crosthwaite likes it
Pau Crosthwaite likes it

Which, of course, brings me to Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The writers mentioned above as the way to go were not on Granta’s list, of course, as they are all over forty. This list, which they could not have known, would appear a week before this issue. Zadie Smith apart, the twenty do not get a mention in this issue. While we can and, indeed, have taken issue with the Granta selection, surely, if we are looking at the future of British fiction, we should be looking at some of these writers and, in particular, the under forties? No? OK, let’s move on. The second essay is by Maureen Freely (an American, who has written experimental novels, though is best known as the translator into English of Orhan Pamuk). Freely damns creative writing courses, damns the lack of translations into English of good novels and damns what she calls the Invisible Hand of the publishing industry which sets taste and eschews experimentalism. Sadly, after the opening section, looking back, she does not mention a single novel or novelist. Paul Crosthwaite takes on novels about the financial markets, rightly damning Sebastian FaulksA Week in December while praising a few others such as Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon. After an interview with Jim Crace (a very fine writer, who has a new novel out which I intend to read shortly) by Jennifer Hodgson (As a nation of readers, Brigid Brophy characterised the British as ill-at-ease and bashful about the fictiveness of their fictions, equating stories with daydreaming and daydreaming with masturbation, and believing both to be bad for the eyesight.), we move onto Katy Shaw on David Peace.

Stewart Home's direct writing for the proletariat
Stewart Home’s direct writing for the proletariat

And then there is Stewart Home. He starts off by saying Humanity will not be happy until the last Man Booker Prize winner is hung by the guts of the final recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He puts it all in upper case, just in case you didn’t get the point.) He then excoriates the likes of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan (bourgeois hacks). These and other similar writers don’t know the first thing about how ordinary people live and they don’t know how to write while proletarians prefer to use direct language – presumably as in their favourite reading, The Sun. He does not mention any writers whom he admires, except for passing references to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and even they get damned. There is no future for the type of bourgeois literary fiction that dominates publishing today he says, though it is not clear what there is a future for, apart from what he calls proletarian writing which, in the past, has sadly not done well. His own fiction writing is replete with graphic and gratuitous sex, which the proletariat will certainly like, and he does like to stick it to the bourgeoisie, which is certainly a very worthwhile thing to do. Indeed, his works do have a certain interest. However, Stewart, my love, I have news for you. There is room for your writing and there is also plenty of room for what you call bourgeois writing. I am very much in favour of experimental writing but let us not forget that Ulysses was published eighty-one years ago and many readers find that too innovative and few writers have produced anything more innovative and, at the same time, that people want to read, since that time. So let us leave space for the experimental, the innovative and, yes, the proletarian, while also leaving room for the bourgeois novel, which is what most people want to read.

A 1914 novel - the  future of British fiction?
A 1914 novel – the future of British fiction?

In the next essay, Carole Jones talks about the Scottish novel, so it is a pity that there is virtually nothing on the Welsh and Northern Irish novel. She talks a lot about James Kelman, a writer whom, I confess, I do not enjoy but also about A L Kennedy, Alan Warner and Ali Smith. Victor Sage talks about Nicola Barker, a writer I do intend to read soon, before we get on to China Miéville. I have to admit that I did not take to his kind of fantasy but this is a failing on my part, not his, as I know a lot of people do admire him.. His essay is entitled 5 to Read and it consists of five recommendations of books in the fantasy genre. Interestingly, for an essay focussed on the future, it starts with a book first published in 1914. This is Marion Fox‘s Ape’s-Face, republished in 2006 by a small Canadian publisher. I had never heard of her or of three of the others. One – called I Hips – I can find no reference to by Googling or in WorldCat so s/he (Miéville says he does not know the sex of this author) may be fictitious. The one I have heard of is William Hope Hodgson, whom I hope to read and who has been championed by Iain Sinclair, amongst others. We conclude with an essay on Cosmo-kitsch, which you can read for yourself and an article on teaching creative writing.

The New Review reviews the State of Fiction
The New Review reviews the State of Fiction

It is a decidedly mixed bag, which has some interesting articles but not much on the future of British fiction and barely a single reference to any younger writers (who, presumably, are the future). While they did not have the Granta list to hand, they could and should have tried to explore some of the younger writers and what they are doing, instead of writing about books published in 1914 and authors over forty. I dug out some older Future of Fiction essays to compare. In 1978, the long since defunct New Review had a State of Fiction Symposium in which they asked various authors as well as as few critics about the development of fiction in English over the past ten years and anticipated or hoped for developments in the next decade. There were some interesting comments. J G Ballard said the role of imaginative fiction becomes more and more important for survival, while Martin Amis commented I can imagine a novel that is tricksy, alienated and as writerly as those of, say Robbe-Grillet while also providing the staid satisfactions of pace, plot and humour with which we associate, say, Jane Austen. Stewart Home would not like that. Lots of other interesting comments, some of them still valid thirty-five years later. In 1992 ANQ published a forum on the future of American fiction, edited by Lance Olsen, who wrote an essay on the Michael Jacksonization of American Fiction, by which he means that everyone is playing it safe, going for the predictable and what sells. However, he does look at possible trends – cyberpunk, the graphic novel (not mentioned at all in The Review of Contemporary Fiction) and a host of other possibilities as well as a host of interesting writers. There are lots of interesting contributions from writers like Kelly Cherry, Tracy Daugherty, Janice Eidus, Robin Hemley and Jerome Klinkowitz. This was later published as a small, separate book called Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. I will also mention in passing a previous Review of Contemporary Fiction, the David Foster Wallace-edited forum on the Future of Fiction in 1996. This is a complex set of essays but with lots of interesting ideas (Q. Will John Updike be remembered a hundred years from now? A. John who?) and still available. I look forward to rereading it and seeing where the current British one could have done better.

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