Time for us all to grow up

Why is the modern British novel so terribly earnest and irrepressibly juvenile?


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

Circus of Dreams (Constable, £25), John Walsh’s elegant and entertaining memoir of London literary life in the late 1980s and early 1990s, turns a bit less elegant and entertaining in its final stretch. Here Mr Walsh files a traditional Grub Street veteran’s lament about how awful all the young people are these days, how terribly the Booker Prize has degenerated and how negligible would be the welcome for any old-style publishing maverick who applied for a job in the industry in 2022. 

Such laments rarely do any good. And yet this considerable harangue contains one highly arresting sentence.

This is the observation that Sally Rooney, for all the bouquets that have descended on her sober Hibernian head, has, in her best-selling and TV-adapted Normal People, really only produced a superior version of the Young Adult novel, albeit one containing far more sex than the genre usually allows. 

And here, you feel, Mr Walsh is onto something. In fact, a quick trawl of the files reveals that this complaint has been made about a whole host of distinguished literary names in the past decade or so.

What did Julie Myerson think of Donna Tartt’s equally celebrated The Goldfinch when she reviewed it for the Guardian back in 2013? Why, Ms Myerson not only judged it tedious and over-long, but, oh dear me, “Potteresque”.

Several critics were deeply puzzled by Mary Gaitskell’s The Mare when it rolled into view three years later; Ms G, you see, had made her reputation by specialising in rueful probings of complex psychological states, and this was a novel about a girl from the projects who is encouraged to try her hand at horse-riding in upstate New York.

And what do you know, it transpired that Gaitskell’s book had started life as a Young Adult novel before taking on its more Pulitzer-friendly final shape. 

It is, naturally, very difficult to criticise anybody who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but there have even been occasional murmurings to the effect that what with his ingenuous youthful narrators and dystopian settings — see Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun — the great Kazuo Ishiguro might even fall into this category.

But how do you define a Young Adult novel? And where did the genre come from in the first place? 

As far as the Secret Author recollects, it was essentially an American phenomenon whose ornaments began to wash up on these shores in the mid-1970s. Previously there had only been children’s fiction, but suddenly public libraries came out in a rash of paperbacks with titles like The Boys of Summer or Minty Morgenstern Heads West. 

They were usually what is known as “issue” novels, that is to say artefacts in which the eye-catching subject matter (drugs, teen sex, disintegrating families) always seemed to be more important than such stanchions as character, style and plausibility.

Nothing wrong, of course, with the kind of book that, nearly half-a-century later, turns up in the Young Adult section of a public library: the novel about feisty Arabella whose erstwhile best friend Jessica won’t talk to her now she’s gone to the posh school, or Goth gear-wearing, gender-fluid Kieran whose parents have decided that they can’t stand each other any more.

Questioned as to their relevance, librarians usually declare that they serve as a useful bridge between children’s books and adult literature for the child who is having trouble transitioning to the latter. 

A traditionalist, on the other hand, would probably maintain that the sooner you get young people started on the really good stuff, the more rapidly their feeling for literature is likely to take root and grow.

Is Normal People really only a superior version of the Young Adult novel?

But if one stratum of modern literature is reaching out to the layer above it, then, mysteriously, it is also reaching down to the one beneath. If one mark of the modern British novel is its lack of interest in middle-class life, once a staple concern, then another is its irrepressible juvenility, here defined as the flaring prompt-cards that advertise its themes, its mundane psychology, its terrible earnestness, its desperate wish not to offend and its deep-dyed moral salubriousness. 

Why should this be? Why should so much modern fiction set out to conciliate the late-teen to twentysomething audience in a manner that, it might be argued, actively patronises it? 

The answer lies in the fact that in the late 1990s and early 2000s a reading revolution took place in the UK, aided by film and television, in which the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and other titans of the trade carried all before them, while leaving in their wake a huge reservoir of not quite fully formed young person’s taste. 

All this explains Julie Myerson’s remark about The Goldfinch being “Potteresque”. The Harry Potter audience grew up, and in Sally Rooney and her coevals it may very well have found a new home. Mr Walsh is right to suggest that this is a bad thing.

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