In search of the right stuff

Why are there so few conservatively-minded novelists?

Books Columns

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Secret Author is not a Conservative. He rarely looks at the current Cabinet without feeling the need of a bath, and his position is that of a disillusioned Labour voter who believes that the greatest political tragedy of the past thirty years was the premature death of John Smith. But in strictly professional terms, nothing would give him greater pleasure than the emergence on our bookshop shelves and in our Sunday arts supplements of a proper right-wing literature.

Or make that the re-emergence. For, as anyone over the age of 50 will remember, until at least the middle of the 1990s such a thing still existed in the UK. It was not that novelists such as Kingsley Amis, Piers Paul Read, Ferdinand Mount and V.S. Naipaul or poets like Philip Larkin filled their work with outright propaganda, merely that it was impossible to read their books without divining that their approach to life was essentially reactionary. They disliked “progressive” movements in politics and the arts not because they feared the thought of a more equitable world but because they believed that many progressives are simply nest-featherers whose interventions help no one but themselves.

Anyone wanting a microcosm of the old-style literary right in action and the hole left in British cultural life by its passing might start by inspecting the various accounts of the 1980s dinner parties in which Mrs Thatcher found herself sitting down with Amis, Larkin, Anthony Powell, Naipaul and others to discuss the issues of the day.

Let us say that Boris Johnson got it into his head to convene such a gathering. Who would he invite? And what would they talk about? (Mrs T turned out to be surprisingly knowledgeable about Dostoevsky.)

Alas, the dining room at Downing Street would be deserted. The right sort of guests scarcely exist. Boris would have to invite the staff of the Spectator and have done with it.

It is not that books pages are full of left-wing propagandising; it is just that reviewers tend to be cut from the same left-liberal cloth

Talking once about his apprenticeship in the ideologically contested 1930s, Powell recalled that there was a moment around this time when the literary world “went left”. The modern literary world went left in the early 2000s, possibly even earlier.

Again, it is not that books pages are full of left-wing propagandising; it is just that nearly all the kind of books that get reviewed and many reviewers tend to be cut from the same left-liberal cloth. What Rupert Murdoch must think of the Times Literary Supplement, should he ever come across a copy, one hardly dares imagine.

Every now and again, the disassociation between a country that elects Conservative governments and a publishing industry increasingly committed to all the good brave causes becomes more than usually obvious and questions are asked.

There was, for example, some highly amusing stuff in the newspapers circa 2016 about the absence of anything very much in the schedules reflecting the views of all the people who had voted for Brexit (what was he supposed to do, one publisher sniffily replied — commission books about Morris Dancing?).

Why are there so few right-wing novels any more? Because there are no longer Conservative-inclined novelists to write them? Because publishers no longer care to publish them? Or because the wider climate is so hostile to reactionary art? There are plenty of right-wing youngsters about in journalism, but somehow they rarely seem to progress towards fiction — something that is doubtless connected to the highly claustrophobic world of modern novel-writing, with its absence of room for manoeuvre or the exploration of worlds beyond the writer’s personal experience.

The fact remains, though, that the reaction of most reviewers offered a self-consciously or even subconsciously right-wing novel to appraise would be straightforward moral disgust.

Think of the fun — very serious fun, at that — a conservatively-minded novelist could have with the modern higher education system

There are several reasons why this is a shame. One is that there is already quite enough cultural bias floating around the place. Another is that there are vast numbers of modern-day scandals crying out to be sent up in fiction of a kind that no left-liberal would dare to touch.

Think of the fun — very serious fun, at that — a conservatively-minded novelist could have with the modern higher education system, or the Arts Council, or “cancel culture” or the po-faced depravities of social media. Malcolm Bradbury, were he still alive, would be scarcely able to contain himself. Self-righteousness is always a natural target, however praiseworthy the politics behind it, and satire has never been the exclusive playground of the left.

And so we need a new right-wing literature and we need it now. Certain commentators might presume that such an entity a) already exists and b) is sufficiently irritating not to require expansion. They would be wrong. At the moment “Conservative literature” in this country consists of a few tiresome journalists, a blinkered historian or three and Lionel Shriver. We can — we must — do better than this.

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