Sunday, January 14, 2007

Brave Writers

I am heartened that there seems to be, finally, a little literary rumbling of the complacency of so much published fiction. Here is Rod Liddle, in the Sunday Times, not, admittedly, a journalist whose opinion counts for much, asking "has fiction lost its power?" - that had literature had "started being like every other form of mass entertainment, aiming wide and broad, hoping to alienate nobody." In yesterday's Guardian, Zadie Smith was making a similar point; another writer has emailed her in response to "how would you define literary failure?" as being "so eager to please." It would be interesting to see how Smith sees her own work there - my criticism of "On Beauty" was related very much to this; or at least Smith's obvious love of the cloistered privilege of top-end universities, and the fact that for the middle classes, even failure is only relative, it allows them to return to their pathway, perhaps a little wiser. Expanding on this lack of "bravery" - and I guess its publishers and audiences as well as writers who can create a culture of temerity - it's surely what characterised so much of the post-war British novel. Characters started at a certain point - by the end of the novel they had returned back there - or the status quo had been restored. There is no looking into the abyss; none of the total failure of the social system to look after them that you find in, say, "Mill on the Floss" when the Tulliver's court case is lost. Circularity - implicit in "On Beauty" (and its model "Howard's End") is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does lead to some complacency. Things have happened; but the status quo is returned to. You find it in Kingsley Amis; in Iris Murdoch; rarely, in Doris Lessing or Martin Amis. Of course, it can be as powerful as novelstic tool as any other - a troubled marriage at the start of the novel might be the status quo that is returned to - in itself a knowing tragedy. Liddle is also talking about brave writing; where style as well as content is vital to making a novel matter as more than entertainment. I've long been of the view that a certain kind of "talking point" novel - can be little more than a drama-documentary; not leaving a psychological scar or an emotional revealing. The difficulty, of course, is that if everyone's looking for a "happy ending" (and even in the saddest novel, that "happy ending" can simply be a return to the status quo, after the devastation has taken place), then that will be more what gets written, what gets published. Is it just me, or is there far more complacency in the domestic horror of McEwan's "Saturday" than in "Enduring Love" or "The Innocent", where actions most definitely had costs - not for the peripheral characters - but for the mains?

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