Boyd Tonkin: Art-school novels in the frame

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The Independent Culture

Where do new writers grow best? There is, as publishers and agents may soon discover, a fresh answer to the literary gardener's perennial query about the cultivation of talent. Over the past three decades, green-fingered recruiters from the smarter estates of the book trade have tended to inspect the seedbeds at UEA in Norwich and other esteemed schools of creative writing. Ever since, in the early 1970s, the young Ian McEwan joined his mentor Malcolm Bradbury on a course that scarcely existed officially, that particular programme – and a handful of others – have yielded bloom after bloom for the quality side of the fiction business. Now sturdy rival degrees at Lancaster (the British pioneer), Bath, Manchester (at two separate universities) and Glasgow - with Royal Holloway or Birkbeck among the London University colleges - vie with UEA as preferred supplier of next-generation pioneers and prize-winners.

These programmes, and some others, should survive. Yet the coming hike in student fees will thrust weaker courses into jeopardy as the cost of tuition spikes and frugal publishers offer fewer, and less glittering, prizes to hopeful graduates. But should talent-hunters look beyond the usual circuit altogether to find tomorrow's stars?

Rebecca Hunt, fictional debutante of the season for her rule-flouting fantasia of Churchill's "black dog" depression, Mr Chartwell, emerged not from any creative-writing scheme but a painting degree at Central St Martin's school of art. As did Richard Milward, the fizzily inventive author of Apples and Ten Storeys Down. As for Man Booker finalist Tom McCarthy, although he studied English at Oxford, his fiction – from the fiercely "conceptual" Remainder onwards – bears the deep impress of a post-YBA, theory-friendly, art-school sensibility. You may detect the same mischief and audacity when it comes to story and form in the books of (say) Geoff Dyer, another writer steeped in ideas from the contemporary visual arts.

Literary heirs of the YBAs will happily set about the subverting traditional expectations of narrative and character before you can say "embroidered tent" or "pickled shark". Formally inventive strategies will have become second nature to them. Rebecca Hunt has expressed it like this: "The three hugely enjoyable years I spent at Central Saint Martins involved talking about ideas and trying to convert them into something. It didn't matter if the result was good, bad, ugly, or tragically weird, we were free to experiment."

For novels as for installations, such a training may well lead to the creator searching far and wide for the optimum form for any particular work, rather than picking one ready-made off the genre shelf. Hunt says that "In terms of the training I received at art school, I think that the basis of having to find a medium and method in which to convey an idea was very helpful to me with the book."

True, young contenders from UEA or its sister schools will claim thay they can put just as free and wild a spin on the conventions of the novel. No doubt. There's still a difference, I suspect, between the sort of university-moulded author who first plunges into classical narrative and then checks out the modernist or post-modern alternatives to it, and the art-school fiction-maker who has only ever swum in the conceptual sea. Unlike the pricklier sort of avant-garde critic, I make no invidious distinctions. Every writer should seek to excel in their own kind, whether naturalistic saga, interior monologue or surreal burlesque. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Will this ludic twist in fiction take British writing down an untrodden path? Hardly: author-artists have stood in the vanguard of literary innovation at least since William Blake. If we do see a tribe of novelists stream out of art schools – just as pop stars did in the 1960s – then their route might lead straight back to the legacy of Wyndham Lewis, David Jones or Mervyn Peake. These double-headed hybrids and mavericks, masters of word and image alike, have tended to baffle literay critics, who have seldom known how to treat or where to place them. Maybe we can draw a firmer line this time.

His part in saving the world

I predicted in the spring that Gordon Brown would not waste very much time before he returned to his original métier as a historian. Inspired (or infected) by the New Labour trend of a post-election gallop into print, he will begin to publish again in early December. His chronicle of the crisis – and his part in its taming - will be called Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation. Stephen Fry, Keith Richards et al need not worry about longer odds for that coveted Christmas No 1. All the same, Brown's past record as an analyst of cause and context should lend his book more heft than most such apologias. And, after 20 October, readers may pick it up in a rather more kindly frame of mind.

Financial types of ambiguity

The looming pain of next week's cuts cast a shadow even over the glitz of the business-sponsored Man Booker Prize. Chair of the judges Sir Andrew Motion – a doughty fighter for public funds when wearing Arts Council hats – argued before naming Howard Jacobson that the arts world "needs to do more than lament" when the axe falls. "We need to compensate for stringency with vision," he argued. As for the coalition's fond hope that private philanthropy might plug funding gaps, Motion warned "We can't easily adopt the American model without something like the American inducements" – ie, generous tax breaks. Let's hope arts minister Ed Vaizey, a dinner guest, was taking notes. But the most gnomic contribution to the evening came from Man Group chief Peter Clarke. He reminded deficit-haunted diners that even the US government had only ever been debt-free for part of one year - back in 1835. Was that a case for cutbacks, or for lavish spending? Hedge funds as well as literary critics can do ambiguity, it seems.

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