- Those that tell of the real life truth behind a work of fiction
- Surveys of which classic novels readers lie about having read
- Demands for genre fiction to be "taken seriously"
- Revelations of our guilty reading pleasures
- Frustrated calls for important novels about today's Britain
Perhaps another staple is interviews with exotic foreign authors who are urged to talk about the political upheavals in their own exotic foreign countries. Are there any others?
The fifth staple has made two recent appearances in The Independent. In April, Amanda Craig was given unprecedented room (over two and a half thousand words!) to call for a turn away from historical fiction towards Victorianism - which is, by happy coincidence, embodied by her new, cliché-entitled novel. And this weekend, Tim Lott makes more or less the same demand in the same newspaper. This is not a concerted campaign: it is the inevitable manifestation of the fundamental polarity between literary and journalistic writing.
Where are the lives of the young working-class mother? Where is the hoodie telling us about life on the estates of the Wirral or Corby? Where is the story of the destitute, so well captured by Orwell in the 1930s? Where is the great satire on celebrity culture, on English MPs, on CCTV, on the threat to our liberties? Where is the voice of an Anglican vicar, a fairground worker, a nurse, a family lawyer ...Tim Lott, like Amanda Craig, expects fiction to be as dynamic and relevant as a daily newspaper. The British, it seems - with Tom Wolfe as a Colonel Saunders-like poster boy of happy innocence - will never quite appreciate what the abstraction of writing means. Yes, they are right to embrace the commonsensical priority of the real world over books, yet not if this also means to ignore or to deny the violence done by writing. Literary writers are more sensitive to this than those writing opinion pieces or, indeed, blogs. They might wonder, as I do, why they feel that journalism isn't enough to tell us about the lives of the people labelled above.
Whenever I read these staples of literary journalism, particularly those that want novelists to knuckle down to write ambitious novels that capture how we live now, I think of Kafka's A Hunger Artist. Amanda Craig and Tim Lott are the attendants of the circus impresario who wants to replace the fasting showman with the young panther.
Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from its throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.And who would deny them their pleasure? Yet where are the newspapers articles demanding the answer to the question: Where are our Hunger Artists?