Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What if Julie Burchill is our George Eliot?

When Julie Burchill started writing for the NME in answer to their "young gunslinger" advertisement alongside future husband Tony Parsons, it was clear that she was a talent that we hadn't seen before. The world that she would write about wasn't yet invented, yet over the next thirty years she would be both a chronicler of it and a character in that world. As a writer from the left, but with political viewpoints that were often in conflict to it, she always achieved the first requirement of a good writer, to be independent in thought. Her newspaper career, the job that sustained her, was lucrative, not without controversy; and she was always entertaining to read - taking on feminist issues, but with no with no agreed party line, seeing before many others the important shift in how we view celebrity (most notably in her writing on Princess Diana), and drifting into areas that entertainment columnists weren't supposed to - politics and military conflict.

In many ways her writing and persona was a trailblazer for a new form of feminist thought that was a world away from the sisterhood of Spare Rib and the 1970s. Like many writers and artists who developed in the petri dish of punk, she was unformed on entering, and kept with her throughout subsequent years, that sense of independent attitude. She has never been anyone's fool, or has yet found a line which she is comfortable to toe. Moving from being a slightly spikey counterweight to the Guardian's often smug liberalism, to being a thorn in the side of the Times' old world neoconservatism, its a sign of her journalism's power that she managed to alienate both publications at different times.

Yet it is a novelist that we see both Burchill's true worth, and her flaws. Unlike a career novelist, her fiction has appeared intermittently as fashions change. Her early collaboration with husband Tony Parsons, "The Boy Looked at Johnny" was a punk rock cash-in; her bestselling "Ambition" was a lurid eighties confection; "Married Alive" was higher class chick lit, and "Sugar Rush" was sweet irony for Generation Y. She pre-empted the post-ironic fictionalising of the McSweeney's crowd in much of her work for the "Modern Review" an iconoclastic magazine that she ran from a cocaine haze from the Groucho club in those strangely inconclusive early 90s days of the Major administration. As new technologies began to become to the forefront, and the political shift which would bring in Blairism, slowly took place in the background, her work for this magazine, often introducing newer writers like Will Self and Nick Hornby, was a little-read, but much talked-about metropolitan tour de force.

A throwback to the eighteenth century journalist novelist, a Defoe for our times, slinging out appropriate pot boilers as and when the market moved that way; her own brand of me-first feminism has continued to chime with the age and an audience that is always intrigued, sometimes appalled, and rarely unentertained. Whilst more serious novelists gain kudos for their historical fictions or their solipsistic misery fictions, Burchill's work, always true, always ironic, seems the genuine unheralded story of the age. Think about it. When so-called (and male) serious novelists such as McInerney or Easton Ellis approach the fashion industry, when Andrew O'Hagan or Douglas Coupland writes about the perils of fame, Burchill has been there first. Her life lived, her succession of writer husbands, add to not just our interest in her, but a sense that we undervalue her at our peril.

A contemporary George Eliot wouldn't have written a "Scenes from Clerical Life" or "Silas Marner" so much as an "Ambition", chronicling the facile culture of the day. "Sugar Rush" is a brave, funny teenage novel set in Burchill's much loved Brighton, a "Mill on the Floss" for the noughties. As her journalistic schtick becomes a little out of fashion - for we are now in an age of austerity, and Burchill has always been a satirist at our Bacchanalian feast - we wait with interest for what's next. There is time for her "Middlemarch," a long novel on the contemporary world, set, I imagine in Brighton and London. Though her novels and journalism are virtually all out of print, everything sold well when it came out, so are easy to find secondhand.

2 comments:

Jamie said...

Wasn't she married to Tony Parsons? (Perhaps you're confusing Parsons with Paul Morley?).

Anyway, the fact that: "her novels and journalism are virtually all out of print" says quite a lot really. I'm also suspicious of her claims of "she ran from a cocaine haze from the Groucho club" and similar stories from her time at the NME (as are others).

"We wait with interest for what she does next" - I believe she's currently cleaning churches and studying for her degree in divinity. Supposedly retired from journalism yet still publishing articles...

She has always struck me as a very silly and annoying woman, especially her tedious protestations of her working classness etc.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Whoops. Somehow I managed to get her married to Tony Morley, the great Aston Villa winger, rather than Tony Parsons, the writer. The Paul Morley/Tony Parsons mix up may be right. Ubiquitous cultural commentators eventually morph into one.