I’ll come clean, I’m one of those people that actually gets angry by what’s on the Booker longlist, don’t even get me started about the short list. I’ve no industry axe to grind, I’m not in the paid to read, review, opine; I’ve no dog in the race. No, I’m one of those queer folk – a reader, a proper flesh and blood, hand over £40 at the tills reader. I’ve even won £100 Folio books prize for guessing extracts from contemporary novels. I’ve sat and fumed at the Late Review knowing I was more qualified to talk about contemporary literature than some of the punidts. I could do a better job than those ‘hacks.’ So these are my bone fides – I don’t make my living from the world of books, in fact I spend my spare cash on the world of books and I think that kind of gives me a right to vent. Obviously a caveat is necessary, I am not an expert, not a Prof on Contemporary British Fiction, I’m just a reader, someone who still wants to find a writer who has the vitality to make reading worth the investment. I am just someone for whom fiction matters for no other reason than it does matter.
My original title was ‘Why I Hate Ian McEwan’ but to be fair it’s not his fault, he really stands as a totem for much that I find failing the modern reader. I wish I had the time to devote myself to the contemporary lists of every publisher but like all parties that have real lives and real jobs I have to make my decisions based on something close to reliable guidelines – reviews, twitter, personal recommendations and the odd whim. The world of publishing may be surprised to learn that readers do actually have to hand over cold hard cash for books, so we do have a right to have a say on what we get given. The world of fiction may puff itself up in self-importance but it may need to remember that its greatest advocates have bills to pay and houses to keep.
If you’ve ended up pinning your hopes on modern literature you’ve probably failed at something along the way. Whatever ambition the reader has given up they have now replaced it with filling their lives with other worlds and other people’s words. And that in itself is not enough. Mere entertainment and escapism is too cheap a price to pay for the trade. I repeat…It isn’t enough. Literature now needs to provide us with more. The state of the modern psyche, some attempt at answering the modern world’s dilemmas. Otherwise reading stories feels trivial, we don’t want to find we are forced to answer the question of why we are bothering with the made up, the fake, the false, the forced. That way lies the world of non fiction, historical biographies, the supposed truth – the just give me the facts brigade.
Those of us who remain faithful to the novel are there for the long game – this bizarre edifice might yet reveal a trick to us. A voice might emerge who can talk to us. Make sense of a world which is not maligned and much confused. Maybe once upon a time we would have gone clutching for the philosophers – wise guys and girls to sum up the misery of our experience. Their last lights have dimmed and the world of the existential novel has all but fizzled out, failed, Milan Kundera a dim and distant memory. If we read Andre Malraux now it’s not for the French philosophe but for the action, man. It’s the drama that matters, ideas amount for much but without the character and action it’s a dead book. Who still reads Sartre’s fiction? No, not even Muggins here.
It might appear quaint in the 21st century world where TV and film have made advances in a range of genres but the novel remains distinct and special. The physical aspect of the novel is about the inter-relation between the words and the eye. The creation of the word inside the reader’s head is fundamental. All else fails by comparison. The immediacy of film - its drama is compelling without doubt a force to be reckoned with but the solitary nature of the connection between reader and language is without compare. You and me alone, together.
So what is it about McEwan that I don’t like? In many ways he fits the bill of what I require from a writer – engaged in the contemporary, he is (to use Baudelaire’s nomenclature) an artist of modern life. He doesn’t evade the now by smearing his work with the patina of History. And it’s not even as if it’s all of McEwan that I dislike. The early stuff (just like those rock bands everyone claims to like before they sold out and grabbed the golden ring) Yes, those weird early stories of incest, sweat and mud and death. All now replaced by a certain politeness. The bong safely stashed in the attic. Somewhere after Black Dogs he lost the odd and replaced it with a fascination with a government approved prose, effaced and efficient. He even aped policy makers in Child in Time and he moved further away from the common reader’s experience and became more in awe of the wealthy, the privileged, the adepts. Every musician, concert level; every career a pinnacle; successful academics who can quote Kant and who are married to Silks, Miniaturists, poets – gimlet eyed, natch.
This is part of the problem - the characters with whom McEwan chooses to populate his works. The strata of society, as if nothing has changed since the twenties where toffs wrote about their mates and had japes – Powell, Waugh, Greene and Green whose life was born of Eton and Oxford. It’s nothing new but this is 21st C Britain where much of the world is not what it was. Yes, the Bullingdon brigade is still holding sway but we don’t have to be under their spell. Resistance is surely encoded in the artist’s DNA. Yes, the power nexus probably hasn’t shifted but the job of the writer of the modern life should be to stop outside of this small world and see the rest. It sometimes feels as if Lucky Jim never happened, let alone Sillitoe. Orton knew what the butler saw. I’m not expecting McEwan to be firing angry salvoes – there are some subtle moments of contemporary politics in recent novels, Saturday set against the back drop of the biggest political march in decades, for example but the politics it shows are impervious to the larger world. It’s all so personal. It’s all small p politics. It’s all utterly solipsistic and essentially the sound of worried privilege talking to itself.
But what do I know? The most successful British author has an audience that buys his books in thousands, the tens of thousands. At the pool and in the gites, at airports and lidos, his latest will be the one that is being read. People will only read one book all year and it will be the latest McEwan – that’s some heavy brand. What an enviable position to be in, his latest novel with the starchy brief will have people discussing the law and its invidious decisions, it will provoke discussion about free will, child protection and the impossibility of the legal system ever being the same thing as a system of morality and that’s all ok…but is it what the novel is for?
A question about what the novel is for is always going to lead to an immediate pitfall. Of course, the novel is not about one thing. As subjective as the weather, the novel is a big baggy sack to carry one’s shopping in and no two people go to the supermarket for the same provisions to satisfy the same appetites. However, I would propose that the novel has something unique to offer that other forms do not have, its very design allowing it privileges others cannot have. Of the many things a novel can do one is its ability to offer us the interior life – we can, in blunt terms, slip into someone’s head, quite naturally. Not invoke via a soliloquy, (that brilliant, bizarre and unreal creation that elevated the play into new and exciting shapes.) No, we can be privy to thought processes, rationalizations. The double thoughts and prevarications that a good novelist can convey. The caviling, the confusions, the petty dishonours of daily life. These characters don’t have to be realistic in any real sense. We do not have to believe that they are walking down our streets (although claims of exaggeration in Dickens, is I think, wildly exaggerated.)
Truth is not larger than fiction but must be able to have the capacity to contain and conceive of it. No, not realistic then, but be credible in its own imagined world, wherever that may be. Paul Pennyfeather is no more ‘real’ than Nicholas Jenkins but both are entirely of a piece with their created universes and both articulate thoughts which fit their worlds. We believe in them because they are of a piece with their creator’s conceptions. As Ondaatje says in In The Skin of the Lion: “The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”
An obvious inheritor of Dickens’ way of making the modern world with all its crooks, fools and lovers is Bellow. Again he plumps for the grotesque, the incredible, he utilizes what Ackroyd said about Dickens ‘the old streaky bacon’ of high and low life interspersed and interwoven that gives the novel its taste. It could be argued the rarified air of universities and high finance is no different from McEwan’s own stomping ground, so what’s the diff? In a word, it’s invention. It is the life force, the vitality of his creations. They sing and zing with credible language. Voices. If Bellow has a cast of voices who all speak the thousand shades of American, McEwan has a single idiolect – the bland Standard English spoken in an RP accent of power and authority. Even those characters who don’t speak it are remarked upon, as if they are out of the ordinary in his world, whereas, of course they are the norm. Few of us get to breathe that rarified air. It’s the fat that gives the flavour.
For Bellow each character has his own voice whether it be the hectoring, the plaintive, the strident, bullish or querulous. Like Salinger he realises American comes in all manner of voices, the linguistic fingerprints that lift the character from the page and embed themselves within the reader’s head, where they reside after the reading light has been extinguished. A living creation made of ink and paper – we have been given privileges of interiority – a glimpse into a life that’s lived other than our own. Both like us and not us. It’s a warm and human world where nephews look after esteemed uncles, where the cold cabbage and rough houses of Chicago loom large in the sumptuous apartments off Humboldt Park.
The impersonal nature of McEwan is obviously a deliberate choice, much as Bellow’s was to use his own life, his family’s, his friend’s as fodder for his fiction. To find themselves recast, re-arranged, re-arraigned, judged and sometimes dispatched. Of course the characters feel real – they started off inhabiting the ‘real world’ but Bellow’s invention makes them more than facts in an exercise in reportage. His overarching philosophy, his innate curiosities about the mechanisms that hold and dissolve us come into play. His heroes forever writing letters which are never sent, diaries never read, ripostes never flung – it’s the life of the mind which we all live in whether we realise or not. We don’t think about maths and angles when we play squash, instead we play to win, to beat, to not get beaten – Bellow would understand that repetition, that desire, the very baseness and its futility. McEwan doesn’t – his brain surgeon is reason incarnate, all trig and triangles. Bellow knows reason gets your pants pulled down in the street.
Maybe this is a false opposition. After all, Bellow is hardly a fair point of comparision – Nobel winner, feted the world over, a touchstone of sense and wisdom. As Heller once said in response to the question about why he hadn’t produced a novel as good as Catch 22 “Well, who has?” Well, who is as good as Bellow? Who could stand next to Bellow? Surely though it is in the trying? The writer of modern life should be doing more than painting pretty pictures of moral dilemmas – all wrapped up neatly in 220 pages of neat and tidy prose. If we read Gissing at all now it’s not to learn about the Married Women’s Property Act. The 18th C novel was a messy affair with diversions, lapel pulling asides and forceful finger pointing. The potent has been replaced with the polite, the playful with the po-faced and all adventure sealed off behind Health and Safety tape. And it doesn’t have to be like this, we don’t have to look far to see other models, other approaches, other voices.
If the novel is going to be a ship seaworthy for 21st C travel it needs to embrace what it means to be modern – I don’t need Charlie Citrine in 2015 – his time has been but somewhere out there is his grandson and his story needs to be told in a way that will hit home. 10:04 and Goon Squad seem to offer possibilities – to be sincere and aware of the problems of the wearing effects of irony and a world where media of all sorts has worn out our ability to respond in any manner that might be described as authentic. Egan’s famous ‘powerpoint’ chapter would have been an amusing theoretical game, an oulipolian conceit but it was moving and genuinely daring, showing us that there’s life in the shaggy dog yet.
What art does in some way or another is affect our vision – our ability to see is either brought into focus or we see something which we were originally unaware of seeing. The ancients got there first, nothing’s new, it’s the old mirror and lamp trick. T J Eckleburg’s eyes were vacant, no longer able to offer the corrective vision but FSF could. The entertainment of art has to bear repetition, if it is to be consumed and moved on from then it’s merely a snack rather than something likely to sustain us on our voyage. Music is something we want to hear over and again, we don’t tire of seeing the great paintings and the same should be the case with novels. We should want to return to them for their continued pleasures.
The wit and invention we expect from art is all too often something shaped of an artist’s own messy life – Bellow is an obvious example but even Flaubert who was diligent in removing himself from the scene of the crime declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Proust, the greatest of all 20thC novelists, made art of the life he eventually retreated from. For us readers, it’s not one or the other – it’s Art and Life not Art or Life – Art teaches us something about living, something I do not believe the careful, tidy writing of McEwan offers. His mannered, middle class treats world problems as crossword puzzles whereas the great French novelist Perec treats the puzzle as the clew, literally the thread of the maze of life and death. How else to make sense of La Disparation- those disappeared, absent, erased? For him, and for us, it’s no game.
Yes, we want to be entertained but as the critic Bloom succinctly put it, “we do not read for easy pleasure or to expiate a social guilt but to enlarge a solitary existence.” (We might also add, and for fun Harold.) When the final page is turned we should feel our lives enlarged, made wider, expanded. When the narrator slips into a crowd at the end of a Modiano novel we feel the weight of History, absence, loss, guilt, recrimination and violence that was Paris and the Vel d’Hiv. A world the writer himself only knows through stories and family anecdote. Not yet born himself yet bearing witness like Sebald’s Austerlitz – I cannot help but think of his description of the kindertransport whenever I travel out of Liverpool St – the grey ghost of History; the shroud the survivors wear, the gap felt for those no longer there. This is the writer of modern life in action. For History is now, as Eliot quite rightly pointed out. Not some quaint historical novel with cod 18th C dialogue but something that was made now. These footsteps echoing in this garden. Now.
The very best writers have the very best standards, ones we may not be able to match in own lives. The writer has to judge all characters by these same high standards; none can be let off the hook – no extenuating circumstances. It’s not for the partial or the soft hearted. For, and this may well be the rub, as a writer you are asking someone to share the pleasure of your company for a significant period of time, time which could have been spent doing any number of other attractive things. And it’s got to be worth our time. Their ability to balance the tension between plot – the necessity to tell a tale, to have a story - and character is one that is forever unstable. It is a kind of literary version of Doolittle’s Pushmepullyou. Characters are ambassadors, familiars in both senses of the word – we recognize them and if the writer is careless they can become just vehicles for plot, ventriloquist dummies for the author lacking any credibility. Merely throwing a voice rather than making a new one. The characters are what we remember long after the book is closed. And often what gives it a second life.
Now we’re all post-modern enough to know that we’re not supposed to identify characters as real, that they are all constructions and that it is the ideas, their representations, their significations which matter most, a process which seems to me like reducing cake to its constituent ingredients and then eating the raw batter. Very tasty I am sure, for some. In reality, i.e. outside of the Academy, we read to meet voices, to hear their timbre and to judge them sympathetic, credible, realistic (that’s my invite to the post-modernist Christmas party rescinded.) If a writer turns their character into a cipher, a symbol freighted with meaning any decent reader will, like Hamlet, smell a rat. As Nabokov said “ A major writer combines storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter that predominates.” And he went on to say “ a wise reader reads not with his heart not so much with his brain, but with his spine.” The least we readers can ask is that the writer has a spine too.
The slick surface of much of modern prose seems to want erase its own creation, its own production. A polished sheen, what one novelist called “prose on its best behavior” Nothing to trouble the eye, force the reader to pause, possibly re-articulate a phrase to check for sense, to roll it round the mouth, to tease the meaning, to jag and catch the eye, instead it’s all just facility. Facility to turn the page, as if what we’re looking at are not marks on the page but pictures to smooth our journey from the first to the final page – we didn’t miss the meaning, we didn’t have an experience. McEwan, Owen Sheers, plenty of others writing now have sandblasted their prose of all awkwardness, all that is lumpy and eventually all that is human. The novel becomes solely about the story and nothing about the telling. A higher fibre version of the airport thriller – genres which are often unfairly maligned as being second rate and substandard but there is at least an honesty to them – generic yes, but upfront about it, not slyly trying to suggest they are doing something grander, more worthy.
McEwan’s old mate Ishiguro is an interesting proposition, he appears, on the surface to be stepping away from the safe world of generic creative writing writers. Yet, has he really done any more than steal the devices, the very furniture associated with the hugely popular fantasy genre? Or is he having a go at writing fantasy fiction, a left handed exercise, like C Day Lewis and John Banville writing detective fiction? Whatever he’s doing it smacks of a form of tourism whereby the literary writer maintains his credibility, generates column inches for his supposed artistic bravery in stepping outside of his comfort zone, breaking down barriers, bringing new readers into a literary ghetto like some evangelist. But the final word rests with the reader, there’s much heavy lifting to be done to wrestle with the ambiguity of whether these characters are symbols or not – dragons, pixies, mists of forgetfulness – can these just be merely part of the trappings of the convention, the reader scratching their heads constantly asking “Am I missing something?” And “how much did this cost me in terms of time, money, effort?” What we are left with is an effaced and effacing piece of writing that lacks the honesty of the committed genre writer who is not making excuses and is writing her stories because she is dedicated to the genre. Interestingly the only writers who spring to mind (and I’m sure there are probably others) who straddle the lit/genre divide are Iain Banks and Michael Moorcock – neither interested in smoothness and both attracted to the askew, the big idea, the capacious bag of spanners approach. Amis, describing Bellow’s Augie March, could be making the case for any number of the more interesting modern novelist when he said of its style “[it] loves and embraces awkwardness, spurning elegance as a false lead.” If Baudelaire is right and “every age has its own gait, glance and gesture,” the smooth New Labour prose ™ of McEwan is a worry as if all variety is being erased in place of the convenient, writing which ponders politely the ‘big issues’ like a Radio 4 thinkpiece with Polly Toynbee and Michael Portillo. The Moral Maze in prose.
Fortunately the big ugly sprawling rattle bag of the novel is still around, if not necessarily garnering column inches, literary prizes and Front Row reviews. Nicola Barker is unjustly ignored, ploughing her great lonely furrow, constantly in search of the modern voice, the sound and nuance of modern speech. Her characters communicate with modern angst, the false starts, repetitions and hesitations, the quick reach for cliché instead of originality, pop culture allusions, the half finished, the trailing thought. All these make up modern life. And she has some conception of the complexities of class, money and confusion that surround the blank spaces of the literary map – the Farageland of Kent’s Thames Gateway, Canvey Island, Luton – places no one comes from in McEwan’s gated community. Like Zadie Smith, Barker knows there are other voices. And these voices are worth listening to, other rooms in which Literature has not inhabited recently for want of an interested party to show us these lives worth examining.
This is not some attempt at tokenism, some clumsy attempt at positive discrimination but instead places where there are stories worth telling. David Peace now seems like some dreadful prophet after the Saville affair but he’s not a documentary maker: he’s telling stories in a voice like Mark E Smith. GB84 tells us everything we need to know about corruption, moral decay, betrayal and by the time he’s finished ‘you know it in your brain,’ as The Fall once ‘sang’. What do I know ‘in my brain’ when I put McEwan to one side? Well, he’ll never split an infinitive nor end a sentence with a preposition. And if that’s the kind of writer that represents the modern world we might as well end the experiment now, it’s a dead form. Game over.
But of course the novel isn’t dead. Maybe, just maybe the times are a-changing. With austerity kicking in, the demonization of public services and the continual selling off of the family silver we might just be in the process of producing some angry writers who are willing to slip the chains of decency and make novels which burn with rage. Franzen’s latest doesn’t ignore the digital world but instead tries to imagine what the atlas of the post Snowden universe might look like. There are fresh voices that fill the air – Sharma’s Family Life, Rohinton Mistry (where are you?), Marlon James, Sunjeev Sahota. It’s the challenge now for the McEwans of this world to take up the baton before they are history’s men. Dead end boys in a dead end world.
In the final analysis it’s us readers who need to shout out of their windows "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" like Howard Beale in Network. Those who are commissioning new writing need to remember who they are doing their jobs for – not the publishing houses, not the writers but the readers. We know it’s about the market, we know no-one likes to be left with a pile of unsold books and that celeb memoirs and cookery books sub the lit kids but there are enough of us out there, enough of us for whom the delight in discovering something as genuine and touching as Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is life affirming and possibly life changing, so much so that we want to buttonhole one in every three strangers to tell them about itWe’ll buy multiple copies for friends, family and colleagues. We are the ones you want to look after. Without us you are nothing more than greengrocers piling high and selling cheap. We’ll still be here after the latest fad has gone and we’ll still be paying your wages. Think on.