Monday, 9 August 2010

Shaking up British literary complacency

A row is taking shape in British literary circles after academic Gabriel Josipovici declared that some of the countries’ leading authors were not literary giants.

Josipovici condemns the likes of Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis largely on the grounds, it seems, that while they write well, he thinks they all display a “petty-bourgeois uptightness” and are “prep-school boys showing off”.

According to the Guardian, he apparently “singled out The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's story of obsession, as easy to read but lacking ‘a sense of destiny, of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words’, unlike that experienced through Proust or Henry James. McEwan's novel is read ‘to pass the time’, he said.

“Such novels had a ‘lack of vision and limited horizons’.

“‘One finishes them and feels, 'So what?' – so very different from the gut-wrenching experience of reading Herman Melville's Bartleby or William Golding’s The Inheritors,” said Josipovici.

Now, I’m aware that a similar question has been raised about literature in the US, but don’t remotely know enough to comment on the situation over The Pond.

In this case, I’ve read at least some work by all the authors that Josipovici is quoted as mentioning. What I’ve read of McEwan’s work I’ve enjoyed – Amsterdam is very darkly funny. I’ve not been stunned by Barnes’s fiction, although I like his non-fiction (Pedant in the Kitchen is very funny). I enjoyed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; I didn’t like Amis’s Money.

I’d add into the same mix Blake Morrison, whose latest book, The Lost Weekend, I reviewed a couple of months ago.

When I start to really think about it, Josipovici is right. All of the above write very well. You can enjoy them. But they don’t leave you with any great sense of underlying questions afterward.

I mentioned Amsterdam as a book I enjoyed – but I can’t remember anything about it that left me thinking afterward – compare that to Golding's Lord of the Flies, which I hated at school and then was stunned when I re-read it as an adult a few years ago.

The article also mentions the current plethora of historical novels as though this were necessarily a negative thing in terms of thought-provoking literature.

Now I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (last year’s Booker winner), a big book about Thomas Cromwell and his role in the English Reformation.

With 101 pages of the 650 to go (I’m absolutely racing through it, given my usual reading speed), I’d have to say that not only is it a very entertaining read, Mantel has penned a deeply informative novel – and one that does make you consider questions around its story.

One could say the same of Thomas Mann’s family saga, Buddenbrooks, which was the title listed on his Nobel citation in 1929.

So if we take Nobel (and Booker) status as indicative of literature, then historical novels certainly count.

But if we’re looking for more than a good read, well written – a ‘novel of ideas’, in other words – then there is no shortage of literary greats (and entertaining to – see Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum).

Personally, Mann is a giant in that area: after reading Buddenbrooks, my introduction to his work, I read a collection of the sort stories, culminating in Death in Venice. The book took me three months to read, because I didn’t want to miss anything and there was so very much to see. And when I read that final novella, my jaw was left on the ground.

I’ve read Death in Venice a number of times since – and on each occasion, I see something different. Reading it initially left me stunned – I don’t think that I had ever quite realised just what a book could contain.

And that, I think, is what Josipovici is bemoaning a lack of.

But if not quite on that scale, there is actually plenty of thoughtful stuff around in genre fiction – if you set aside the snobbery about genre fiction in general.

As an example: recently, in a sci-fi mood, I read Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space and Iain M Banks’s Use of Weapons in succession.

Both are well written, rollicking space operas. What differentiates them is that, where that’s pretty much where Reynolds’s book ends, Banks leaves you with a few things to consider: the nature of crime, punishment, forgiveness, repentance and restitution – and that’s without mentioning the constant question that all his Culture novels raise, of foreign policy; of the ethics of interfering in other countries’ affairs.

And as I mentioned last week, setting aside all the hype, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo offers more than just the thrills that its ‘thriller’ tag might lead potential readers to expect.

What is interesting, though, is why such a situation has occurred? Are there no new ideas – or even reworking and rethinking of old ones for our current times? Given the complexities of these times, you have to wonder why not.

It's not that we've always lacked such writers – Golding was mentioned above: there are plenty more, from Virginia Woolf to Iris Murdoch.

Perhaps it’s simply another aspect of the attitude toward intellectualism and intellectual pursuits in the UK? But then again, we have almost nothing that could be described as philosophy in this country – or nothing that anyone outside some hallowed ivory halls has heard of, leaving us with populists such as AC Grayling and Roger Scruton. So maybe it's not really a surprise. Perhaps, after all, we're doing really rather well to have nicely-written books that entertain?


  1. What's your opinion of Jonathan Franzen, Syb? I think he's been getting a bad rap.

  2. I haven't actually read any of his novels, Still, but I do think his comments on the Oprah book recommendation and that issue are interesting: there is a perceived difference between the sexes when it comes to books (as with many other other forms of culture, including film). Perhaps that's an idea for another post sometime soon. :-)