books: What a carve-up

A cosy Left-Liberal orthodoxy has stunted recent British fiction. D J Taylor cuts down the pinks

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game