Boyd Tonkin: In fiction, air miles do not equal quality. Beware the cult of motion
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 19 April 2013
Like an electrical storm that makes everything around it spark and sting, the convulsion of rival histories in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's death has touched, and energised, all topics. I couldn't even begin to list the potential absentees from Granta's new team of the Best of Young British Novelists without thinking of the North-South divides of the 1980s.
The magazine's select score does of course move outside the metropolis for several of its names, from Ross Raisin (Leeds) and Sunjeev Sahota (Derby/Sheffield) to Sarah Hall (Cumbria) and Jenni Fagan (Portobello - by the sea east of Edinburgh, not Notting Hill).
Yet once I began to tally some other estimable under-40s, it soon grew clear how many potential candidates hailed from the north (and west) of a country increasingly dominated by a capital that now operates - in literature as much as in banking - as a wholly globalised city-state. The absence of Nottingham's supremely accomplished Jon McGregor from the Granta list is, for me, the yawning hole in this squad.
It also misses the exquisite Mancunian minimalism of Gwendoline Riley; the poetic Derbyshire drama of Edward Hogan; the Scouse passion and sweep of Helen Walsh; the shape-shifting Welsh wizardry of Rebbecca Ray; the comic ingenuity of her compatriot Joe Dunthorne; not to mention the Lancastrian ferocity and tenderness of Jenn Ashworth.
I'm not accusing anyone of prejudice against voices and visions that may lie beyond the services at Watford Gap. Think of these writers as potential additions to the Granta roll-call rather than competitive substitutions. However, some of the critical chatter around the Top 20 of 2013 points to the evolution of a blinkered new orthodoxy.
This tends to set an ideal of "globalised" authorship, supposedly more in touch with the forces and issues that matter in our integrated world, against fiction from some parochial or "provincial" backwater, deemed out of date and out of touch. Again: the Granta judges didn't do that. But I fear that their list might inadvertently abet the trend.
Lesson One in literature teaches you that breadth of angle does not equal depth of field. Exhibit A: Jane Austen. The major writer can see the world in a grain of unfashionable, provincial sand. And my doubts about the smug cosmopolitanism that confuses movement with progress - in-flight with insight - have nothing do with geography as such or (still less) with those stale arguments about cultural diversity that have surfaced again this week.
Another novelist, tight in focus but broad in perspective, who might have adorned the Granta team is Courttia Newland. He writes, with pace, grace and edge, about people of Caribbean origin living in a small patch of west London.
As every combatant in the war of Thatcher's legacy agrees, Britain suffers from a growing chasm between the metropolis - the focus of transnational creativity in culture, commerce and much else - and its overshadowed hinterland. Our patterns of inequality mean that you may find that ragged hinterland on a London council estate as much as in a blasted former mining town. It's not just that we ought to hear more from novelists in Darlington rather than Islington. Rather, we could cherish the kind of art that stays put but digs deep.
Thatcher's paradox was that, for all her temperamental insularity, she flung open the nation's doors to every international gale of change. Fiction as much as finance still gulps that oxygen - and feels that chill. So, if you want to take another road, you might begin by noticing how far the received wisdom of her age may colour judgment, even in the arts. Swifter motion will not bring finer emotion. After all, you will often find the most myopic and parochial of views in the first-class seats on the long-haul flight.
Exotic travel to Smith's north-west frontier
Zadie Smith this week won shortlist slots for two prizes. In the Women's Prize for Fiction, NW will face novels by Homes, Mantel, Atkinson, and Kingsolver. Yet the book, and its grittily sensual scenes of life on the north-west frontier of Willesden and Kilburn, will also contend for the Ondaatje Prize, which scans fiction and non-fiction for the year's best book about a place. Smith's London postcodes have competition from Philip Hensher's Bangladesh, Patrick Flanery's South Africa and Gavin Francis's Antarctica.
TS Eliot's ghost stalks the cathedral
What an evocative choice of poetry for Baroness Thatcher's funeral. Neither extract counts as triumphalist, or celebratory. The Order of Service ended with Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", with its ache of loss for the child's "clouds of glory". As a preface came a passage from "Little Gidding", the last of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, with its mystical sense of recurrence, not progress: "the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started".
"Little Gidding" includes a Blitz-set vision in which the poet meets a forerunner (Dante? Yeats?). The ghost bitterly discloses "the gifts reserved for age", not least "the rending pain of re-enactment/ Of all that you have done, and been; the shame/ Of things ill done and done to others' harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue." Those lines bring me out in a cold sweat. I hope they have that effect on politicians.
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