Decline of the English novel

Bereft of God and middle class values, authors are left with identity politics


The number of new novels published in the UK every year is well north of 100,000, at least half of them in digital formats. Of this prodigious total, a few hundred get some kind of notice in what Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter called the “posh papers”.

The awfulness of the fiction on the Waterstones display table is one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern life

But what are they like? To browse the weekend arts sections is to be instantly waylaid by a cornucopia of alleged talent, where masterpiece after masterpiece stampedes into view like iron filings obeying the magnet’s call. The reality, alas, is slightly different. In fact, the awfulness of most of the fiction currently reposing on the Waterstones display table is one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern cultural life.

Why is the English novel in such a dreadful state? One reason is sheer lack of technical ability. The proliferation of creative writing courses, whose MA degree is to a professional writer what an FCA is to an accountant, has brought in a certain amount of standardised nous, but is there a novelist under the age of 50 who can do dialogue, especially when that dialogue is put into the mouths of juveniles?

Either it’s Zadie Smith with her over-egged italics (“God, dad. Shut up about it please.”) or it’s Sally Rooney with her dour didacticism (“Marianne is a very vulnerable person. And you did something very exploitative there and you hurt her,” etc, etc).

Item two on the charge sheet is the titanic air of snobbery that surrounds the upper end of the market and the zealously enforced apartheid that fences off “literary novels” of the kind reviewed in the Observer from middlebrow pond-sweepings. It is more than a century since Andrew Lang declared that, forced to choose between “the dubitations of a Bostonian spinster” — he’d been reading Henry James — and “a fight between a crocodile and a catawampus” he went for the catawampus, which is slightly overdoing it.

On the other hand, we inhabit a landscape where a writer like William Boyd — more than capable of taking on Zadie and Ali Smith — is looked down on simply because he can shift copies.

Sally Rooney: Dour didacticism

Item three — and much more central to the English novel’s precipitous decline over the past 20 years — is the wider context in which fiction gets written. Set down in a serious novel published in the period 1890-1910 by, say, George Gissing or H.G. Wells, you straightaway encounter a set of characters whose inner lives are disturbed by fundamental questions about their moral and spiritual behaviour. Here in 2020, nobody believes in God any more (or, more precisely, would think religious belief to be a fit subject for a novel), while “moral behaviour” is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week.

One by one, the old standbys fade away. No one much cares to writes about mundane middle-class life — a staple of the English novel since the days of Henry Fielding — for to be mundane and bourgeois is not much more than a source of shame. Even class, which kept streams of novelists in business for a couple of centuries, is not the draw it once was, if only because fashion dictates that modern books about class can only be written from the perspective of those oppressed by it. How one would love some modern-day Waugh or Mitford or Raven to write a novel in which the fount of all moral goodness flows from a country house in Gloucestershire and the lower orders are portrayed as shiftless and venal. Alas, no one in these enlightened times would dare to publish it.

Take away God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics and minor interactions

Naturally, all these proscriptions have had a deeply disabling effect on an artefact that used until fairly recently to be a reliable guide to how people felt and acted. But take away God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics (of great importance to a sociologist but a desperate yawn when peddled by writers of both right and left) and some very minor social interactions.

Finally, of course, there is the atmosphere in which that crate or two of items that annually merit the attention of the posh papers are debated and reviewed. Here hype — most of it non-literary in origin — reigns triumphant. Every so often a promising twenty-something novelist will raise their head from the Sargasso Sea of mediocrity that surrounds us and have to endure the weekend supplement treatment — that is, having expectations wished upon you that you can’t possibly sustain.

The current victim of this process is poor Sally Rooney, not yet 30 and the author of two quite interesting novels, who will now have to spend the next ten years of her career digging herself out of the pit into which impressionable critics have flung her. None of this, alas, is going to stop any time soon. Meanwhile, the reader searching for what Martin Amis used to call “a mature response” is unlikely to find it reviewed in a Sunday newspaper.

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