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The End of the English Novel

In 1980 the English novel seemed to Bill Buford, the editor of Granta (and an American), parochial and moribund. In the introduction to Granta 3: The End of the English Novel, he examined why, condemning the ‘current crisis in publishing’ and, thankfully, finding some reasons to be cheerful.

The novel has always smacked of inadequacies. It is regularly less than what is expected of it. Or worse, it is more. But rarely the thing we had in mind, never quite settling upon an identity that it is easy to be happy about. Fifty years ago Ortega y Gasset confidently pronounced it dying. Twenty years ago, Marshall McLuhan tried hard to demonstrate that it was already dead. It wasn’t, and, for some reason, still isn’t, still very much available as an attractive even if expensive instance of Randall Jarrell’s weak apology for it: ‘A longish piece of prose with something wrong with it.’

Since the war, the British novel has developed its own indigenous difficulties, or, at least, its own vernacular of complaint. When Gore Vidal remarked at the recent Edinburgh Festival that there are only ‘middle class novels for middle class readers with middle class problems’ he was echoing a tired charge that has become as predictable as much of the writing occasioning it. For John Sutherland, the complaint was raised to its most explicit by the best sellers list five years ago, dominated with eerie appropriateness by the publication of Jane Austen’s Sandition, inviting the observation that the books that are published and purchased still belong very much to that novel of sense and sensibility which has merely been written and re-written for nearly two centuries. Bernard Bergonzi’s dark phrase is, in this context, ominously emblematic: the novel is no longer novel.

This vocabulary of termination has suddenly acquired a significance which has authoritatively dropped it from the theoretical to the base, real court of the marketplace. The Current Crisis in Publishing is, we understand from the many articles it has generated, of unprecedented proportions, and is noisy with terrible doomsday pronouncements. But it is not, in the end, the book as object which is threatened – for more are appearing (if briefly) than ever before, although their number and kind have enlarged the image of publishing to something uncomfortably akin to the fast food industry – but the book as fiction, as an instance of literature: not the things in the window or on the railway platform, but the stuff apparently too cumbersome to consume on the run.

The implications of the present Crisis are obvious. It’s not simply that a literature exists which many find disappointing. It’s that we are being told, from now on, it can be no other way. There are reasons for it — the rising costs of this or that, the ‘pound’, inflation, foreign markets — and the reasons are real in a simple pocketbook way. Faced with many English novels, I confess I’d rather watch television. Faced recently by their price, I see I have no choice.

In such a context, what a publisher says is important. Recently Robert McCrum, a young editor at Faber & Faber, offered his view of the Crisis in the Bookseller. A young editor at Faber is virtually a symbol, and when he enters the most prominent columns of the nation’s trade magazine to say that the situation is hopeless, some scrutiny — of the Crisis and the institutions suffering from it — is not warranted. It is necessary.

McCrum’s article is entitled ‘Writing without Risk’ and is written with terrible finality: current writing is bad because it is written by bad writers. Nothing could be simpler or more incontrovertible: publishers, after all, don’t produce literature; they can only be ready for it when it arrives. I am starting to see matters from a vastly different perspective, and my view proceeds from a belief that since the war British publishing and bookselling have never been less ready for literature than they are today. The Current Crisis in Publishing I am suggesting is far worse than any of the daily newspapers are even beginning to describe.

McCrum has three complaints, the first of which is by now fairly familiar: British writers are lifeless and sapped, ‘happier adding to the myths, writing about the world we have lost’. The complaint is familiar stuff: a revision of Vidal’s grievance against the middle class, Sutherland’s of the novel of sense and sensibility, or Bergonzi’s of the dreadful droning sameness of the contemporary. The complaint, however, must be questioned. There are undeniably a great many gifted writers in Britain. There are arguably more gifted writers than in any other time in the twentieth century. But unlike most other historical periods, the problem is not simply one of number but of kind: today’s interesting fiction has until recently exhibited little sense of unity, except for the superficial unity of being uneasily different from the writing usually promulgated as English: that post-war, pre-modern variety of the middle-class monologue, with C. P. Snow on one side and perhaps Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg on the other (Kingsley Amis will always be nearby providing vitriolic commentary). Now, unlike (I suspect) Robert McCrum, I have no quarrel with these writers or their readers who, for reasons still obscure to me, keep buying their books. My quarrel is with those responsible for allowing these books to crowd out the kinds of books I’d like to read.

And that grievance originates from the assumptions tucked, like bedsheets, around McCrum’s second and most important complaint: ‘British writing seems immune to the philosophical and intellectual fevers of the time, inoculated against innovation by its native pragmatism.’ The healthy (and well founded) suggestion here is that serious modern writing should be defined as much by international concerns as local ones, and it is a great convenience that ideas, unlike kinds of humour and automobiles made in Japan, are not inhibited by national borders. In the twentieth century, moreover, ideas (largely because of the book) have become extremely portable, and observation full of implications that don’t seem to have been understood: the philosophical and intellectual fevers of the time are not transmitted merely by contact or proximity; no metaphor, regardless of its power, will render ideas contagious: much of the time they have to be read, and this is where the trouble begins.

We are all familiar with the complaint that English writers are, in McCrum’s phrase, artistically timid, and cannot seem to carry off what the Americans keep getting away with. But the English writer’s timidity is partly predetermined. The American writer’s sense of experiment is largely the consequence of participating in an international dialogue. ‘There is a movement of younger writers,’ Charles Newman, former Editor of TriQuarterly observed fourteen years ago,

to learn unselfconsciously from national literatures other than their own. There are very few promising and/or young American writers today who have not been more influenced by ‘foreign’ writing than by any of their immediate predecessors. And the genuine merit of ‘national discoveries’, such as those of the new French novelists, have only become ascertainable as writers of other cultures have adapted them to their own experience, without being committed to a programmatic defense of la méthode.

The four most influential writers on the American fiction ‘renaissance’ of the Sixties and Seventies were foreign: Joyce, Kafka, Nabokov, and especially Borges. In 1961 Borges shared the International Publishers’ Prize with Beckett. In 1962 New Directions published the English translation of Labyrinths. In England, no hardback publisher ever bought the rights. The book appeared in 1970, eight years later, four years after Newman’s article, and ten years after it was written, as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Two months ago, Picador bravely (even if recklessly) published G. Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, remarkable for a formal inventiveness which invites comparisons with two other ‘experimental’ books published this year: John Barth’s LETTERS and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan’s Stew. Difference: Three Trapped Tigers was written in 1965 and translated and published in America in 1970, most probably long before LETTERS or Mulligan’s Stew existed as possible ideas. Is it really surprising that a book of this sort, written over fifteen years ago, should be dismissed here — when at last it does appear — as an oh-yes-another-one-of-those? Books, unlike the Daily Mirror, can confidently outlast the week, the month, or the year. But they, like the ideas they carry, must be remarkable indeed to endure the span of a decade and a half.

Translations into English are notorious money losers, but it is easy to see how the losses are continually of the publishers’ own making. There can be no market for foreign literature if the books do not come out regularly enough to create it. Last spring I came across Sidgwick and Jackson’s admirable publication of Mario Satz’s Sol, the first novel of an intended trilogy. The book is big, interesting, and expensive, and arrives like a half-eaten piece of food from someone else’s exotic feast. Is it worth buying this book when — with the resistance to foreign literature so strong — I am certain that it is mostly a gesture, and that the remaining two volumes of the trilogy will never appear? Exactly who, to use McCrum’s phrase, is approaching his or her task without risk? In the most recent Index Translatorium I could locate (1977), I found very few countries that translated less than Britain (for instance, Iceland and Botswana and, possibly, Uruguay). In contrast to the 486 literary works translated here, 1,186 appeared in France and 3,389 in Germany.

Insulation generates insularity, and the barriers are not strictly linguistic. William Gass, an American, quite possibly the most exciting practitioner of the English language, has only one book in print here (an essay). William Gaddis has none. And John Hawkes’s recent novel, The Passion Artist, has spent eighteen months circulating around London looking for a publisher. How, in such a context, can the British writer be anything but provincial? Where can one catch these ‘intellectual fevers of our time’? Do publishers really believe that ideas are merely contagious? I’m afraid I’m highly suspicious of McCrum’s confident assertion that ‘the attics of London are not full of embryo Conrads’. If such an embryo Conrad existed would a publisher recognize him? Or worse, would a publisher encourage him to write like the real Conrad of nearly a hundred years ago? There are reasons why English writers demonstrate the nervous wish to be elsewhere.

Of course, it is a commonplace that what is published in the end is decided by the Great British Public. A mythic beast of extraordinary proportions—with puffy white arms, sustained by McVitie’s chocolate biscuits and books about the Queen Mother — this Great Public has been elevated to virtually incontestable authority. The personality requires some scrutiny if only because it seems to be determining the shape of British literature so exclusively, especially now during the Great Crisis. Is this Public, I’m asking, a real entity of such an incontrovertible sway or is it merely a marvellous mythology of an industry sustaining a decisively archaic practice?

The book trade, like the items it sells, is one of the most enjoyable institutions to have survived the nineteenth-century English middle class. It was of course that great, liberal, and particular public — with its one language, one education, (usually) one sex, and its one overriding determination to know things comprehensively — which engendered and supported marvellous intellectual periodicals like the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly (circulation at 14,000), the Fortnightly Review (25,000), the Athenaeum (18,000), or the Cornhill (in 1860, 110,000). That those periodicals do not exist today and, for some very important reasons, would never survive is probably the best indication of how we in 1980 are different.

It was also that great, liberal club — wanting to know its many things — which engendered and supported the commissioning book trade, whose function was simply to keep all newly published books in stock. The assortment was fairly consistent from one shop to the next. The reading public was, after all, the same throughout the country: it could be said that its members read in the same accent.

Today’s British book trade is sweet, old-fashioned, and self-protected. It is also remarkable for the extent to which it has hardly developed throughout its history. Businesses, resisting specialization, have changed little, and the customer, pretty much like the novel he buys, is invited to remain the same. In Britain, I understand, there are roughly 2,500 bookshops. In Germany, there are 6,000. In the United States, where the population is only four times larger, there are 16,217. Something is wrong.

General bookshops sustained literary fiction because of the specific public with specifically general interests entering them. That public no longer exists, and there is no way that general bookshops can adequately sustain literary fiction today, but general bookshops unquestionably (and unquestioned) dominate. One of the many casualties has been the most ridiculous: the campus book trade. In the university town where this magazine is published, it is common for students, in numbers up to 300, to attend a lecture about a book which has sold out or was never available in the first place. The town’s largest and most famous bookshop offers a window display which tacitly suggests that most of the university’s students live and buy their books somewhere on the far side of the country. On the week I am writing this there was one work of fiction on display. Last week there was none.

In the United States, there are many reasons why there should be over 2,600 generically distinct campus bookshops. In Britain, there is absolutely no reason why there are not even enough to justify a statistic. I am not urging booksellers to create a ‘market’. I’m saying that the market exists and has existed for some time: it’s made of people not getting the books they need, and everybody — from author to reader — is suffering.

The significance of the success of Virago and the Picador series is that they have demonstrated how some publishers have been able to cultivate new markets from which, potentially, new kinds of writing — distinct from competitive market identities — can emerge. Though still terribly limited, this success (reinforced by Quartet and the Women’s Press, and, in both hardback and paperback, by Writers and Readers, Allison and Busby, Carcanet, and others) suggests the extent to which the Great British Public takes on far too much blame far too often. It is time that publishers, distributors, and booksellers recognize that this Public is not one public, perversely homogeneous, but many publics with many needs to be served. If the adventurous novels are to be sustained — something other than the tired version of Covent Garden or the impoverished replication of Lucky Jim or yet another rendering of what it is like, man, to be an international television/film/journalist/playwriting/jet-setting/bed-hopping/continent jumping/Oxbridge Personality — then it is time to secure the audience (it’s there, you don’t have to look far) that will buy them.

The Current Crisis in Publishing is revealing just how anachronistic publishing and bookselling are and just how much this society is trying to sustain its creative artists and their achievements on a system regularly incapable of performing the task it is called upon to perform. Thirty years ago the official historian of the Longman publishing house proudly announced that nothing significant had changed in publishing since 1842. His remarks today acquire a terrible pertinence: ‘Those who have controlled the business during the last 107 years have provided no new answers. The interesting thing is that in themselves and in their policies, they have provided the old answers over and over again.’ The interesting thing, now, is they continue to do so: the book, in more than one sense is a hand-made art in an economy no longer able to accommodate it.

Robert McCrum’s article is, I’m sure, not representative of the person who wrote it, amounting to an instance of the high brutality of good intentions. The problem is derived from the position he argues from, a position which can only end up reinforcing the practices of an industry which is choking off the best examples of its product. And the problem is entirely unrelated to what I understand to be McCrum’s central argument and third complaint — that writers and publishers take too much for granted, and are incapable of the determination and artistic integrity of those from politically repressed nations. The real censorship taking place is not political but economic, has little to do with writers and everything to do with the way their writing is produced, distributed and sold. Hardback publishers are this culture’s most influential arbiters of taste: they determine what we value if only because they determine what we will have the opportunity to judge. It is urgent to distinguish the current state of publishing and bookselling from the actual state of fiction.

In Fiction and the Fiction Industry, John Sutherland suggests that the literary-publishing complex, by nature inert and backward-looking, requires complete destruction of old forms as a precondition of advance; such was the case with the three-decker novel in the nineteenth century. Is the present hysteria an intimation of another revolution? Can we really believe that most publishers are going to risk publishing another Borges or another Gass or another Márquez? And do we really believe they will spot the embryo Conrad? How are we to measure silent censorship, how can we take the dimensions of a nothing? The prospect is gloomy and irritating and angering, and invokes like a banner Lawrence’s anarchic phrase quite importantly revised: surgery for the way novels are made — or a bomb.

What it means to put a text in print must change. The culture in which creative prose must now make its way is obviously developing into a novelty culture, to which the busy, busy book business appears as one of its most efficient contributors. Indeed, the Present Crisis should be, in the end, not a cause for despair but celebration. New outlets must be developed if creative prose is to find its readers, let alone be supported by them.

The most important reason why the Edinburgh Review, Quarterly, the Fortnightly Review, Cornhill, or Athenaeum do not exist today is because the public who purchased them is no longer around. The alternative, however, is not in the tired continuation or uninspired variation of their format: the crowd of exhausted reviews busy with a books-in-brief or a truncated fiction chronicle or current ‘hit’ list merely caters to the industry’s mindless pace, generating mini-ideas which, like the books they’re about, exist only to be pulped. It is obvious that a new publication must come into existence which relies upon a specific, even if narrow group of readers who care not to have their intelligence insulted every time they turn the page. It must be along the lines of Charles Newman’s dreams — a publication that is independent and personal and notable for the quality of its sentences. But most importantly it would respond to the culture of its time by refusing to be an instance of its worst ways, dedicated, above all, to a collaboration of writer and producer and reader. The prospect, for instance, of the reader having a definable relationship to what he reads has only been tentatively explored. Imagine a reader commissioning a writer, in the same way and for the same reasons that one commissions a sculptor. Or a group of readers commissioning a whole issue or even a series of issues. The possibilities are endless.

Today’s novel is in fact far more novel than it is commonly understood to be: it is not the novel which is dying, although it may well be the old ways of its production which are, a disjunction made particularly acute by the coincidence of this Great Publishing Crisis and the development of a new kind of fiction. What it means to tell a story has, virtually unnoticed, taken on a new set of meanings, even if the most obvious and unfortunate one of them is that the story may never appear in hardback or, worse, never reach its potential readers.

What it means to tell, to write, to narrate, to make up is changing, and it is a change significant enough to be distinguished from the aesthetic concerns which have dominated the last eighty years. The twentieth century — in its modernism or its postmodernism or its literature of exhaustion — has been grounded in an attitude of opposition which is too crude and too simple and too incomplete to be viable today. The modernist precepts of Ortega y Gasset, with its dialectical rejection of the nineteenth century, was a crucial response to an entrenched bourgeois culture which is no longer the enemy because it is no longer a presence in the same way. In the art dubiously and thanklessly entitled ‘postmodernist’, Ortega y Gasset’s precepts are elevated to a creed. But postmodernism confronts not a nineteenth-century literature but a twentieth-century art, not a bourgeois society but the unwieldy anonymous mass-marketed twentieth-century mind. Modernism was the careful collision of the permanent and the new; postmodernism has inevitably become the reckless collusion of the new and the useless: it smells of literary leftovers, with thoughts, like food, not quite digested.

Postmodernist art is important because it invites us to recognize the particular brutal emptiness of the twentieth century. But in its laboured refutation of a tradition that is increasingly difficult to identify and in its persistent depictions of the passive, vacant mindlessness readily generated by the various media around us, it is conflated with the context of its making, not transcending the problem but being an instance of it. Debilitating deconstructions dissolving into pathetic patter.

Current fiction is remarkable for its detachment, its refusal to be affiliated, its suspicion of the old hierarchies and authorities. It is not modernist or pre-modernist or postmodernist or of that debate, but managing nevertheless to be both arriving and departing at once. If I am right that we are moving into a different period of creative prose, it is characterized by a writing which, freed from the middle-class monologue, is experimentation in the real sense, exploiting traditions and not being wasted by them. The writer today is managing to reassert the act of narration — the telling not simply of fictions but stories — not in deference to the referential workings of bourgeois realism but as an instance of the human imagination. In the work of many writers — Salman Rushdie is an outstanding example — we are moving closer to the fiction of Gabriel Márquez or Italo Calvino, a magic realism, rising out of an age of technical exhaustion, where telling is at the centre of our consciousness.

The old divisions and the old generalizations are no longer usable. The fiction of today is testimony to an invasion of outsiders, using a language much larger than the culture. The English novel has been characterized by the self-depictions of its maker’s dominance: the novel of sense and sensibility is informed by the authority of belonging. Today, however, the imagination resides along the peripheries; it is spoken through a minority discourse, with the dominant tongue re-appropriated, re-commanded, and importantly re-invigorated. It is, at last, the end of the English novel and the beginning of the British one.

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