What is wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?Perhaps because "the modern literary novel" doesn't exist except as a generalisation. Gough does complain that Anita Brookner won the Booker Prize rather than Martin Amis' comic Money, which indicates where he's coming from, and also observes that of the most recent Booker winners "John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia". But generally it's too lacking in precise examples. And of course he means Kiran Desai. Her mother never won the Booker. But never mind; the daughter seems to be older anyway. I heard her reading from her winning book on the Guardian's Haycast and was staggered by how familiar it was, as if a generalisation had been made singular. No wonder it's a prize-winner.
The problem, I think, is not that modern novels are uncomical but that they are part of a culture-wide tendency toward corporatism. Novels are produced and received as part of the movement and maintenance of a career. Gough is part of that tendency himself, equating the vitality of the novel with mass audience appeal. How can a novel make use of its freedom, as he wishes it would, if mass appeal is a guarantor of its vitality? Why does it matter whether a novel is popular or unpopular with other people? If it's popular with the reader, that surely is enough. What do we think will be gained by popularity? A revolution in sensibility? A moral improvement of mankind? Communal bliss? Maybe it will simply relieve us of the burden of individual critical judgement.
The blame Gough has to dish out goes, as usual, to the academy. (Why is it never the mainstream press, publishers, editors or even readers?). He's identifies US creative writing courses as a catastrophe. These created not great novels but an institutional path for struggling writers: “As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.” Again, no examples. Yet doesn't the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most famous, champion the kind of dour realism he wants to move away from? Moreover, those who have written novels about writers writing about writing, tend also to be comic: Barth, Roth, Markson. Amis' Money itself isn't free of reflexivity is it?
Still, I don't want to address Gough's argument in detail, because I'd be here all night reacting against every straw man and the overrating of second-rank writers like Flann O'Brien. All I want to say now is: forget comedy, forget tragedy. Write what needs to be written; what you need to write. To quote Beckett on his own breakthrough: "Molloy and what followed became possible the day I became aware of my stupidity. Then I began to write the things I feel."