Sunday, February 27, 2011

Generation Fill?

These things come unannounced. An idea in a TV planning meeting perhaps. The BBC seems to have gone overboard on books at the start of 2011, something to "fill" the gaping book-shaped hole in the BBC's cultural coverage. Having missed out on Richard and Judy Book Club, they're clearly trying to make up for last time. The disappointment of clip show Faulks on Fiction now behind us, the next initiative (and that feels like the right word) is for World Book Day, when the Culture Show profiles 12 first time novelists. The Guardian's John Mullan chaired the panel, but is obviously allowed no obvious spoilers, as his piece in the Guardian is more ponderous than that - looking somewhat unevenly at the idea of "literary fiction."

I've no real opinions on the writers on the list, as I've read only one of the books on there (Jen Ashworth's promising and dark-funny debut "A Kind of Intimacy") though I heard Evie Wyld read in Norwich last year. Lee Rourke, Neel Mukherjee, James Scudamore and Catherine O'Flynn are recent new novelists I've read and enjoyed that are not included*, but that will always be the case with lists. The Twitterer who was aghast at the lack of cultural diversity on the list surely has a point, but maybe its just an anomaly of the selection criteria. Hard to know if any of these twelve would feel comfortable with the term "literary fiction" or not.

The Guardian, I seem to remember, did a similar thing a few years ago, and just chose half a dozen "first time" novelists. I can only remember that Gwendoline Riley was one of them, and if the question is "where are they now?" all I can say is that in Gwendoline's case she was sitting having a coffee with a friend in Manchester on Friday lunch time. A 4th novel, one hopes, is on its way.

In other words, its a little TV-led idea that will probably make an interestingly bookish episode of the Culture Show. "People have been talking of "literary fiction" since the 1960s, but it was in the early 80s that it became established" - writes Mullan, and its an absurd assertion, people have been talking about literary fiction for ever (see the Henry James essay that this blog is named after) even if it was not always called that. What he means, I think, is that it was in the 80s that it was necessary to distinguish between literary fiction and "popular fiction." (Its also a very British view, for where are the great late 20th century American novelists in this?). My own view is that distinction is now a little unecessary; there is little taste it seems (from readers or publishers) for books that are deliberately "difficult" or "experimental", or even "serious." Books he mentions, like Ishiguro, Mitchell and Mantell, can of course, be all of these things - yet Mitchell's gloriously readable and elegantly plotted "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" was deemed inaccessible by the Booker judges and others.

Mullan, a good enough literary educator, seems a little out of his depth in casting an eye over the development of literary fiction. His conclusion - that contemporary writers have assimilated literary experiment into their work - I find especially suspect. Contemporary tropes of first person narratives, false endings, and literary pastiche may be du jour, but they also seem far from being only literary ones. That bestseller "Shadow of the Wind" plunders Borges wholesale, after all. And, then again, Mullan also says some of this "crop" of books don't use any literary trickery at all.

There does seem a preponderance of first-person narratives or single character perspectives from the thumbnail sketches of the 12 novels given in the piece, and this might dovetail somewhat with the rise of creative writing courses (and their role in writer's development.) Its not just that first-time writers given themselves a single voice to play with (something I've always found incredibly hard to sustain), but they often put them in impossible situations (they are a child, or imprisoned, or there is an early death); the getting over these formidable obstacles - which most published novels will have to have done (with or without the help of a workshop peer group)- is a kind of literary rite of passage. Next time, you hope the hole you've dug yourself in, is not so deep, not so hard to escape.

I hope the exposure on the culture show helps rather than hinders the dozen novelists on the list; luckily, most writers I meet these days are under no illusions about the marketing requirements of the profession; they will just be happy to be there, its a crowded market after all, and (again an issue), you are only a "new voice" once.

There are, I think a genuine trend or two in contemporary British fiction; I'd describe a kind of neurotic realism, where ordinary people are no longer the protagonists of their own life in the complexities of the modern world, but victims. You see it in Tom McCarthy's "Remainder", Magnus Mill's "Restraint of Beasts", Nicola Barker's "Clear" or David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green", small characters inadvertently swept up in something life changing. The world's depicted are realistic, but somehow turned inside-out, their responses to it neurotic or paranoid. Think of Dave Rudman in Will Self's "The Book of Dave", the young boy in James Scudamore's fabular "The Amnesia Clinic", or the lonely characters of Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost". All contemporary morality tales of a sort. This trend - of personal jeopardy - clearly takes from the psychodramas of early McEwan, but also, I think, from the "personal story" literatures and memoirs that has so frequently been on the bestseller list over the last decade or more, whether misery memoir, or survivor story. Faced with an uncertain world, young (or new) novelists look inwards for their stories, their gaze is on the miniature, rather than the external and all-encompassing.

Back to next week's Culture Show, and I'm sure it will be a well-made and interesting feature. The writers themselves are probably exactly the sort of people you want in the limelight, the couple I've met (and the one's missing from the list that I mention) are articulate, thoughtful and generous, good readers, good writers. Those of us who feared the next literary show would be a kind of Celebrity Lit Idol in Big Brother's Library, can rest a little calmer in our beds. One can't ignore the influence of things like Richard & Judy and book clubs in general on the format of these shows after all; and, with e-readers coming of age, the "click 'n' buy" model of books may require a new form of browsing, different than the few minutes we spend in the bookshop. Writers and publishers will have to find different ways of raising awareness than the pretty cover, or the cover blurb. I enjoy reading first novels for many reasons, not least being invited to meet a new sensibility for the first time, but we shouldn't overestimate their role. A literary culture that only mentions first time novelists on the one hand, and the Rushdie-Amis-McEwan generation on the other, lacks balance.

*I realise a couple of these already have second books out, but still, that just highlights the daftness of this list's criteria.


Benjamin Judge said...

Can I rather boringly say that I agree with pretty much all of that.

I must admit I glazed over somewhat while reading about what is and isn't literary fiction in that Guardian article.

I am looking forward to the programme though. There are few pleasures greater than finding a new writer to read, and with Jenn Ashworth making the list I have big hopes for the other 11.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks Ben. It was hard to write - as there are two things going on, the list itself, and the somewhat redundant argument of the article. If I hear Midnight's Children mentioned in the Guardian one more time I'll.... (probably have to read it!) Evie Wyld gave a good reading when I saw her in Norwich at a Granta launch. Her book seems an ambitious one. A few of the others look very promising. And like I say, I do enjoy reading first timers, anyway.

litrefs said...

What he means, I think, is that it was in the 80s that it was necessary to distinguish between literary fiction and "popular fiction." ... My own view is that distinction is now a little unecessary; there is little taste it seems (from readers or publishers) for books that are deliberately "difficult" or "experimental"
Agreed. I remember when Perec's "Life: A User's Manual" was given a marketing leg-up.

I've read none of the writers' work and don't have a sense of current tendencies. The article seemed to focus on CW courses - their value to both students and the reading public. Maybe it's true that only people on such courses will read "difficult" work and keep their spirit alive, albeit diluted.