A strong case could be made that what has done the most damage to the modern novel from the late 20th Century onwards has been the concept of the literary. This actually may not be so when one considers the impact of so much new storytelling media (film, TV, computer games, the internet) upon the novel’s standing as the primary method of entering another world, but clearly the idea of literary fiction, fixed ideas about what books must do to qualify as art rather than entertainment and the dependence on earlier writers has made the novel less interesting and potent than it was.
Firstly, the expansion of the publishing industry has led popular fiction to be much more badly-written, and literary fiction to consciously aspire towards the highbrow. The days of competent popular novelists like Nevil Shute, JB Priestley and Nigel Balchin are long-gone. Modern popular novels like those of Dan Brown don’t even qualify as what Orwell called the “good bad book” - a badly-written book with something in that endures: it might be pointless to observe that The Da Vinci Code isn’t as good as Great Expectations, but it’s rather more sobering to think that it isn’t even a patch on King Solomon’s Mines (let alone Buchan, Wilkie Collins and Fleming). Instead, it’s a product of an age that treats everything as a commodity, a book hammered into the vague shape of an thriller but with nothing of the soul which we find even in Rider Haggard. The Harry Potter books, very good though they are, are symptomatic of this to some extent, as they dilute the very concept of magic itself. Instead of the ambiguity, fear, wonder and imaginative texture you find in Alan Garner and Terry Pratchett, Rowling’s world is, to use AS Byatt’s phrase, “dangerous only because she says it is.” Even authorship is being treated with contempt. I fondly remember the days when the fact that Naomi Campbell had not written the novel published under her name was seen as rather funny and embarrassing, but now it’s seen as perfectly acceptable for publishers to sign up celebrities in this way.
In reaction to this, there now exists such a thing as literary novels, even though we would never use a phrase like cinematic films. The Man Booker Prize represents the commodification of the uncommodifiable - the factory where Art is made - much as British television gets round its reliance on talent shows by commissioning shows about Important Social Issues (The Street, Criminal Justice) to fulfil its Bafta quota. John Banville’s comments upon winning the Booker Prize for The Sea capture this perfectly. He remarked that it was “nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize“, elaborating on this by arguing that Dickens was a greater novelist than James, but James was a better artist than Dickens, and that “there are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for real books.” Art becomes not a term of fecundity and inspiration, referring to any outstanding creative work, but a genre, a reassuringly recognisable style of writing, another shelf in Waterstones, labelled “Real Books.”
A Man Booker judge from a few years earlier, the comedian and novelist David Baddiel, attempted to skewer this way of thinking in a piece that was unfairly reported (even by Booker impresario Martyn Goff) as a plea for the prize to focus on lighter, more commercial fiction. His actual argument was that many of the submitted novels that he’d had to read as a judge had clearly been written with the purpose of winning the Booker in mind. He admitted in a later article that a Banville novel - Shroud - had been among those he was thinking of, and it’s probably no coincidence that Banville, upon winning, praised the panel for not enlisting any stand-up comedians. The essential point that Baddiel had hit upon was that for a an author to have designs upon his book’s reception is anathema to good art - a book should be more concerned with being true to itself and its strengths than to pleasing a handful of judging panels and literary editors.
To define the literary novel, we should define what it is not. Dickens is probably the most obvious example - possibly the greatest British novelist, an unashamed popular entertainer, someone without a pious devotion to previous novelists and an author not initially embraced by the literati (Leavis and Henry James had their reservations about him). However, I’m going to choose a less obvious example - James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They may have been embraced by the literary novelists - would John Banville and Jeanette Winterson exist without them? - and their techniques may be the techniques that the literary novelists have run to ground, but they seem to me to be perfect examples of the kind of novelists we are missing, as surely as Dickens. Firstly, they are trying to do something different - both wanted to represent consciousness in a way that had never been done in novels before. Woolf’s attack on HG Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett may seem like snobbery to the contemporary reader (and the snobbery is certainly there), but if one remembers the status of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett at the time it seems more like the equivalent of an attack on McEwan, Martin Amis and Rushdie - a genuine attempt to break away from received wisdom and bring some originality to the novel (even if one prefers Wells to Woolf).
By contrast, Jeanette Winterson once stood by Virginia Woolf’s grave on BBC2’s The Late Show and proclaimed herself the heir to Woolf, while John Banville was described by Peter J Conradi in the Independent as “a new Henry Green”, but Woolf wasn’t an heir, and Green wasn’t a new anyone. They were trying to do new things with prose. Why would I want to read a new Henry Green, when I can read the old one? Ian McEwan recently argued that it was “ignorant and foolish” to ignore “the great conversation of literature“, but this is essential for literary criticism, not fiction. If you read a brilliantly-written, moving and thought-provoking novel, you don’t think less of it because the author shows no interest in Jane Austen. Kingsley Amis’s lack of enthusiasm for novels may have weakened him as a literary critic, but it doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of his own fiction.
A major reason for this is probably the rise of Literature as an academic subject. Amis and Graham Greene were among the last novelists for whom fiction was something they wrote rather than studied. Consequently the allusions we find in their work (and in that of novelists from Mary Shelley to George Eliot to Evelyn Waugh) are from poetry and classical texts, rather than novels. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is steeped in the myth of Prometheus, German romanticism and the ideas of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, but its strengths as a novel come from Shelley’s determination to tell a tale that will, as she put it, “quicken the blood.” By contrast Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is hopelessly indebted to another novel - Shelley’s - and makes no imaginative impact, just as Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot is revealed as a feeble Pale Fire knock-off with little human interest once one looks past all the adulation for Flaubert.
In interviews with Ian McEwan, one gets the sense of someone who writes novels because of the pleasure they’ve got from reading Updike, Bellow and Roth, rather than from the urge to tell stories. Martin Amis - whose fiction is similarly fuelled by his worship of Nabokov and Bellow - once dismissed an (admittedly ill-considered) manifesto for a troupe of writers who proclaimed themselves the “New Puritans” with the putdown “there is no reading behind the writing.” Surely, though, the problem with Amis and McEwan is that there is no writing behind the reading. Novels are not enough to make new novels.
Unfortunately the literary world often gets it wrong when it comes to appraisal. I have an old literature textbook from the sixties, (The Pelican Guide to English Literature) which I’m fond of looking through simply to see the dismissal of Orwell as embarrassingly bad and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene as minor writers. Posterity rightly made them the three giants of the period, but the textbook marched to a different drummer, as I‘m sure did the literati of the time. I’m reminded of it when considering the fact that JG Ballard, a gigantic figure in post-war fiction, and one given to us by science-fiction rather than the literary world - never won the Booker Prize, and was only shortlisted once, when he lost to Anita Brookner (Flaubert’s Parrot was on the shortlist that night too). In forty years time, readers steeped in Ballard and less familiar with Brookner will be similarly amused by the judges’ decision. Even the finest novels with the “literary” tag have tended not to make the grade - Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and, astonishingly, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong were not shortlisted, although the idea that six better novels were published in each of those years seems dubious.
It’s often said that British novels are no longer relevant to the outside world. This point needs qualification. There are two types of novels, the Pride and Prejudice type - which examines human beings’ internal nature - and the Bleak House type - which examines society. Neither of these two modes is superior to the other, but we tend to get sick of the former because the past century saw a deficiency of the latter. Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novels, for example, examine human beings as exquisitely as Austen, but there have been few angry novelists in his time that mix satire with artistry in a way that would rival Dickens and Swift. To find that type of novel, we have to look to the genres, where we find Ballard, Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Terry Pratchett. There are also TV series like The Wire, which like Watchmen is far closer to Middlemarch and Bleak House - in achievement as well as scale - than any subsequent literary novel.
So let’s forget about the concept of literary fiction, a blind alley we stumbled into in the late twentieth century and which was behind none of the great literature of the past, and few of the best novels of recent years. Let’s not ask ourselves how well a novel compares with the novels that came before it, because you couldn’t do that with Tom Jones or Ulysses. If fiction is to become once again a prominent part of our culture rather than a subculture, than novelists should once again be encouraged, like Joyce, to do whatever the hell they want, rather than whatever Joyce did.