Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

From the inside: on 'a new life for the novel'

Jason Cowley's claim in today's Observer that there is 'a new life for the novel' in Britain is really just a fresh bunch of flowers on the tomb of the 19th Century novel.

He sets up the familiar scenario: after 9/11, the consensus was that 'fiction was either irrelevant or incapable of offering a convincing representation of a new, changed world.' Of course, this was the consensus of literary journalists writing in the shadow of large headlines. They agreed that 'a certain kind of literature was no longer possible'. Cowley does not provide examples of this kind of literature, only that 'so many of our novels were largely a reflection of the times in which we lived: safe, affluent, complacent, at ease.'

I don’t remember such times. Before 9/11 there were plenty of other events with powerful, metonymic status. In my life, I think of ‘General Belgrano’, ‘Orgreave’, ‘Lockerbie’, ‘Omagh’ . All these and many more. So where does one draw the line? How does one draw the line? Is it the number of deaths?

If so, the El Shifa bombing of 1998 that caused ‘the suffering and death of tens of thousands of innocent people all over Africa, many of them children, by depriving them of basic medicines against malaria, tuberculosis, and other easily curable diseases’ should be as significant as 9/11. That is, had journalists in the West given a shit. Perhaps it is definitive because they didn’t, and still don’t. But that would mean novelists, rather than journalists, would have to give such events symbolic power. This is unthinkable of course.

So one wonders whether fiction borders dangerously on irrelevance as Cowley characterises it. Perhaps it is journalism that is moribund? Like the unnamed fiction Cowley referred to, perhaps journalism is ‘safe, affluent, complacent and at ease’ as it expertly turns the world into a fearful caricature for its corporate bosses. Indeed, one can read articles and comments like Cowley's every week; only the byline changes. Is this consensus, wilful ignorance or censorship?

Cowley takes it as read that fiction needs to address the same issues as his newspaper in order to be relevant. He then slips in the claim that the unique quality of the novel is that only it 'can truly show, from the inside, how it feels to move through space and time, from one day to the next, with contradictory thoughts constantly clashing, over the narrative of a lifetime.'

Presumably, by marrying inner and outer, we would have a unique document that shows us what it was like to be alive at a particular time. This seems fair enough. But then he uses McEwan’s uniquely safe, affluent, complacent novel Saturday as the exemplum. (See Ellis Sharp’s and John Banville’s eloquent destructions of the book).

The problem with bringing the inner life into the equation is that we all have our own 9/11s. We all have events that haunt our imaginations. There is no rational prioritising of these events. We have to deal with them, away from all the chatter. Saturday is far too schematic to convince that it comes from anywhere but the intellect. As Banville says, it’s like a novel created by a government committee. Perhaps this is why journalists are in such awe.

Lars of Spurious approaches the alternative in a moving blog in which he also discusses a novel that addresses the largest of issues from a quiet, very personal angle without indulging in the Schadenfreude that passes for engagement in the kind of novel of which Jason Cowley approves. I pass the blogging baton to him.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:22 am

    perhaps cowley can go back and read White Noise or Survivor...
    Geoff

    ReplyDelete
  2. The problem with bringing the inner life into the equation is that we all have our own 9/11s. We all have events that haunt our imaginations. There is no rational prioritising of these events. We have to deal with them, away from all the chatter.

    Great post Steve.

    ReplyDelete

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