books: What a carve-up

A cosy Left-Liberal orthodoxy has stunted recent British fiction. D J Taylor cuts down the pinks
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The Independent Culture
Not long ago, at some literary junket, I found myself locked in solemn discussion with a Booker Prize-winning novelist on the state of politics. Perhaps this is too fey a description for an argument that ended with Novelist X simply repeating, with a kind of talismanic regularity, the words Mrs Thatcher was evil. What does one do in such circumstances? I murmured something about parliamentary democracies, the transparent unelectability of the Foot-led Labour Party - all the familiar bromides one comes out with when confronted with this sort of liberal bigotry - but it was no good. Mrs Thatcher was evil, you see, and that was all there was to it. In the end I slunk away.

One of the dreariest spectacles of 18 years of Tory rule (and I write as a supporter of the Labour Party) has been the sight of some grand literary panjandrum - Martin Amis, say, or Julian Barnes - rising up to lecture us on the depravity of the modern Conservative Party. This reaction may seem ungenerous, given the quietism of the average literary type, but it stems from the complete lack of political awareness displayed by nearly every leftish novelist since 1979. Four Conservative victories; 14 million votes in 1992. Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock (twice) all lined up and found wanting. An irrevocable shift in the way our national life gets conducted, many of whose stanchions can be found propping up the current Labour Party manifesto, but no - Mrs Thatcher was evil.

It is easy enough to ignore such pronouncements, if only because they have no practical effect. Would anyone seriously contemplate voting Labour because Julian Barnes advised them to? But the consequences of this kind of attitude for the novel have been profoundly depressing. The unreflecting anti-Conservatism of writers has had three main effects. Most obviously, it has produced double standards of the kind that pretend to criticise - say - Kingsley Amis or Anthony Powell on aesthetic grounds while actually denigrating them for being cross-grained Old Tories. Second, it has reinforced the literary world's reputation for Hampstead elitism. Third, and most important of all, it has given rise to a particular kind of dramatised sociology masquerading as the literary novel.

To make this point is not to ignore the shelves of popular novels in which happily married families of four on pounds 100,000 a year relocate to the West Country, and Thatcherism is quietly admitted through the back door with the Habitat furnishings; merely to say that in their left-wing equivalents the bait is always stodgier and much more conspicuous. Margaret Drabble's The Witch of Exmoor ( Penguin, pounds 6.99) for example, features a gang of prosperous bourgeois whose abstract interest in social justice is given a practical focus by their dead mother's will. It is underpinned by a fantastic resentment of our contemporary "mud of meatless burgers, drifting garbage, false coinage, hot vomit, corruption, greed, triviality". And hats off to Ms Drabble, you might say, were it not that this clamorous note dominates to the exclusion of all others and that its authentication comes not in character but from racked-up statistics. There are only 350 child psychotherapists in the whole of Great Britain, the black and ethnic population of Somerset hovers between 0.8 and 1.4 per cent, and it's all the Conservatives' fault!

Worse, perhaps, is the fact that Drabble is still driven to fury by the thought that anyone might derive personal advantage from whatever skills they happen to possess. You leave the book with a queer feeling that any kind of success is inherently suspect because it is achieved at someone else's expense.

The same kind of political claustrophobia, more imaginatively expressed, can be found in fiction set lower down the social scale. Livi Michael's recent All The Dark Air (Secker, pounds 9.99) is a painfully honest and warm- hearted piece of work, but its point, you feel, is much the same as Drabble's. A dim, aimless girl leaves home and picks up with a long-admired but indifferent boyfriend who unbends sufficiently to get her pregnant and install her in his tumbledown house. The book turns into a lowering standoff between the contending claims of his Socialist Worker rants and Julie's naive dabbling in alternative healing. No prizes for guessing whose fault it is. The thought that people have the capacity to make choices, that not every homeless person is a direct result of government policy, is washed away on a tide of determinism.

Inevitably, Michael's point - which scarcely applies to Drabble's cargo of after-dinner mint-nibblers - is that many ordinary people don't have the ability to make choices, and that this inanition is abetted by authority. Yet the heroes of great working-class novels of the first half of the century by, for example, Robert Tressell and Walter Greenwood, managed to transcend the crucible in which they were conceived. A tract for the times can still harbour people with some kind of life of their own. Look at the actual political arena, and all that exists is a hole in the air. Critics are fond of pointing out the innate superiority of American writing. Nowhere is this divide more obvious than in the political novel, when the native answer to Primary Colors or an older work like John Gregory Dunne's The Red, White and Blue lies in the flaring surfaces and cattleprod psychology of Michael Dobbs and Edwina Currie.

Curiously, when a British novelist does show some political awareness beyond the Thatcher-is-evil reflex, he or she nearly always comes from the Right. For some reason, however old-fashioned their situations, writers such as Max Egremont and Ferdinand Mount nearly always display a shrewder understanding of the way life in England has changed in the past 20 years.

For all the implausibilities of its storyline - Europhobic defence minister found floating in the Saar, hints of an aristo-Fascist plot - Piers Paul Read's new Knights of the Cross (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 16.99) touches on a theme that most serious contemporary writers hardly bother to consider: Europe and the national relationships that complicate its evolution. In those novels that consider international themes this tendency is more pronounced. The message of Timothy Mo's Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard - that corruption in the Philippines is the inhabitants' fault - would have the average left-leaning expert on South-East Asia gnashing his teeth in rage, but as a novel it seems much more convincing than the tracts such problems usually throw up.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the radical conscience of the English novel? With a few exceptions (for example, Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up!) you feel that it has largely been taken over by what might be called the Hampstead Redistributive Tendency, to whom the last 18 years have brought only a series of incalculable defeats in the fight for social equity, and who still look the other way whenever a politician mentions the word meritocrat. One lesson that Margaret Drabble and her imitators might learn is that not everyone who voted Conservative between 1979 and 1997 did so out of simple greed. At the moment, though, most left- wing novels read as if they were written by contributors to the Guardian letters page, which is a bad thing for politics and for English fiction.