Why modern novels are so boring

Writers who forget bourgeois aspiration lose a dimension


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Not long ago Private Eye’s “Literary Review” column took it into its head to attack the novelist and critic Philip Hensher. Naturally, the Eye never needs an excuse to attack anybody; neither are its standards consistently applied.

And so Mr Hensher’s offence turned out to rest on a conviction that Private Eye itself peddles from one issue to the next: the idea that modern novels are tedious. His exact words, addressed to readers of the Spectator, were that “I couldn’t get very excited about much fiction this year — the Booker shortlist was the dullest I can remember.”

The vast majority of modern novels are tedious, and there is no getting away from it

No doubt Mr Hensher’s omniscience can sometimes be a bit irksome, but on this occasion he turns out to be bang right. The vast majority of modern novels are tedious, and there is no getting away from it.

The Secret Author must have read a couple of dozen of them in 2021: big, sweeping sagas of American family life; finely-wrought miniatures of female experience; book-world satires; angst-written psychodramas; eco-fables. With very few exceptions, and despite trying hard to be impressed — for what is the point of reading books you don’t like? — he was bored by all of them. And especially the ones written by writers hailing from the United Kingdom.

Why was this? Is it because they were badly written? In the majority of cases, no. What with all the creative writing courses currently available to the aspiring young, general levels of literary competence are relatively high: books are rarely shockingly bad in the way they could sometimes be 30 or 40 years ago.

Was it a result of the modern author’s fear of expropriating (or being thought to be expropriating) cultural territory not their own, and the consequent retreat into tiny and exhaustively-minded quadrants of personal experience? Not really: you can do a lot with the miniature, and tiny areas of personal experience never bothered Penelope Fitzgerald.

The real reason why most modern fiction is so dull is that it is insufficiently middle class

No, the real reason why most modern fiction is so dull is that it is insufficiently middle class. To make this point is not to pretend that most novels don’t have traditional middle class settings, for at least 90 per cent of their characters are surrounded by the usual accoutrements of houses, cars, university degrees and status anxiety.

What is lacking, on the other hand, is a failure — or perhaps only an unwillingness — to recognise that the novel is essentially a bourgeois art form, and that the moment it ceases to reflect the desires of the aspirational middle-classes is the moment it fails to fulfil its original function and becomes duller and less interesting to the majority of its potential readers.

What single factor connects Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), H.G. Wells’s Kipps (1910), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and Martin Amis’s Money (1984)?

The answer is that, once you strip aside the incidentals of plot, character and milieu or the fact their authors are exclusively male, they are all about upward social mobility. Like the eighteenth-century picaresques that preceded them, their heroes are young men on the make, climbing over or sometimes crawling underneath the hurdles erected by a vigilant authority with the aim of frustrating their passage through life.

Naturally, authorship in this period was not confined to the middle classes. Working class fiction is a great deal older than many critics sometimes choose to admit. But it was a very rare working-class novel, especially in the genre’s Macmillan-era take-off point, that didn’t in some way acknowledge the lure of the girl from the slightly higher social class, the desirable semi, the washing machine and the comforts of consumer materialism.

A rare novel, too, that didn’t acknowledge the procedural motor that these concerns granted to fiction. The pursuit of material success and the pursuit of the girl tended to run together and it was this conflation of motive that gave the tale its romance.

The ability to get on, get by (or sometimes only stay put) remains a vital part of the average human experience

None of this implied an automatic endorsement of middle-class values, and such novels were as likely to contain radical critiques of the processes they were analysing as straightforward validation. Very often the hero would bring down the job and the girl while reflecting that the obstacle course he had clambered over was scarcely worth the effort.

Nearly 70 years on from Lucky Jim, we inhabit a much more fractured literary environment whose authorial catchment area is that much wider and whose range of subjects is that much more diverse. These are both welcome developments.

All the same, when the English novel — if such a thing still exists — said goodbye to bourgeois aspiration and middle-class self-advancement, it lost a dimension. For all the efforts of the egalitarian left to deny it, the ability to get on, get by (or sometimes only stay put) remains a vital part of the average human experience. It explains the popularity of family sagas, of those huge, sprawling, multi-generational monuments to collective endeavour. It may also explain why the specimen “literary novel” sells so few copies.

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