Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bar Fiction

Is there a new type of fiction being written these days? Or a new generation that's about to pop its head over the parapet? It sometimes seems so - though you wouldn't know it from the lists of the major publishers. Where's the contemporary experience? The last Booker shortlist was heavy on historical; packed with literary pastiche. Highly acclaimed and high selling writers like Sarah Waters seem to have it all ways; yet in Morrissey's immortal words, it says nowt about my life. I guess you get the high water mark of one sort of highly conservative writing in Ian McEwan's "Saturday", a novel set in the present day (and a very particular present day), but almost by mere accident. It's a fine drawing room novel. Yet, having rarely been in a drawing room, I'm not convinced its got any relevance to me either. I wouldn't say there's a generation as such - I'm close to 40, and I'm talking about writers as well who are closer to 20; but it does strikes me that the fallout of the Thatcher years is beginning to have its artistic fallout as well. If its people around my age and a little who were politicised by music (or got into music by the politics), then perhaps as the children being born then start, in certain circumstances with a different set of priorities. I guess there's two parallel generations now anyway, those who are born to be consumers, (mobile phone, iPod, gap year, Chantelle, Chelsea), and those who are already seeing themselves locked out (second-hand vinyl, Arctic Monkeys, Oxfam, FC United) - and its not a class thing; you can be in either lot whether you've been to a finishing school or just finished at a sink school. It's more a tribal attitude. If you want to do anything (say, bring up non-obese kids, recycle bottles and paper, eat knobbly carrots, see a local band, write a poem) that has no monetary value then you're in one tribe; if the cost not the value is what you value then you're in the other. Its perhaps that which makes one uneasy at tonight's vote banning smoking in public places - its an assault not just on bad health (and bad manners) which I applaud but on a life less governed. That it comes a day after the same government has ok-d I.d. cards despite not winning any of the arguments, seems only right. I guess any of these things can be picked and mixed on one side or the other. For me its those who think for themselves and those who don't. What has this to do with fiction? Well, everything, of course. I guess if we're not writing Sarah Waters' historical romps, or Zadie Smith pastiches, then we're writing something else. There's been various "names" for scenes over the years that have been both derogatory and explanatory of any kind of fiction that has a local or domestic focus; kitchen sink dramas; aga sagas. I guess what I'm seeing is a kind of "bar fiction" that's set in a bar - not a pub, not a wine bar - for its crucial scenes, since none of the characters own their own homes, or are part of inclusive professions. Bars are an English thing, kind of modelled on some historical antecedents, in Paris, New York, wherever a few writers and creatives gathered; but grown out of the English pub. I used to wonder why I wrote so many scenes set in bars and whether it was a lack of imagination, but then I realised that the bar is the common land of the contemporary city. In bars you drink, you sit, you read the paper, or write in your Moleskine; you might eat there or listen to music, but these are minor affectations. Unlike the "Disco Biscuits" club fiction, bars are where you talk, and listen. They're called things like "The Bar" (Chorlton-cum-Hardy); or Cord Bar or Bar Centro(the Northern Quarter, Manchester); they're not just a Manchester thing, but Manchester does them pretty well - I looked in vain for one in Newcastle at the weekend - and its the pivot for a particular kind of bar fiction. Gwendoline Riley's two novels "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes" hardly leave the place; Lee Rourke virtually lives in one; I pivot in and out; Max Dunbar - a writer we recently published in Lamport Court - stumbles in and out of them. But these might be the last days; the bars might already be over - the smoke (and smokers) gone, and something of their controlled anarchy. You won't find a bar in a novel by Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters or Zadie Smith. It's a small point, but a telling one.

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