Boyd Tonkin: Casting a novel light on a supposed dark period

Analysis

It may owe its origins to an administrative blip, but the "Lost Man Booker Prize" contest has opened a revealing window onto the literary landscape of the recent past.

The scenery it shows, clarified by the shortlist unveiled yesterday, looks at the distance of four decades more fecund than we might have thought. Received wisdom has it that British – and much other Anglophone – fiction dawdled in the doldrums around 1970.

At the end of the British Sixties, goes a familiar refrain, pop music, film, theatre and design snatched a lion's share of talent and attention. The novel chugged along as a declining cottage industry, if not a parlour game. Only later in the decade, with the emergence of a post-punk and post-colonial generation (the younger Amis, McEwan, Rushdie et al), would home-grown fiction strut back into the cultural limelight once again.

This shortlist complicates that plot. It turns out that, in the year that The Beatles said farewell with Let It Be, the Rolling Stones got their Ya-Yas Out and Pink Floyd released Atom Heart Mother, fiction was thriving in its own much quieter way. Then as now, Muriel Spark and Patrick White both rode high as singular stylists with commanding individual visions – although the reputation of White, Australia's first Nobel laureate in literature, has faded rather over recent years. Nina Bawden and Shirley Hazzard, both still at work, represent two faces of the long-term literary career: the first a prolific and versatile professional, the second a quick starter who would (after 1980) fall silent as far as fiction went for more than 20 years.

The past also looks different once formerly low-ranking kinds of writing rise in our esteem. JG Farrell would go to win with Booker in 1973 (for The Siege of Krishnapur), but in general his brand of richly researched and densely plotted historical fiction would not see its critical stock inch up until well into the next decade. As for the presence of Mary Renault on this shortlist, it indicates a fairly recent willingness to celebrate high-quality bestsellers for literary as well as commercial reasons. Yet change can still be slow. A contemporary equivalent of her much-admired tale of the young Alexander the Great would still struggle to make a Man Booker shortlist today.

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