“Bland, dull and repetitive” and obsessed with the lives of thirtysomethings in north‑west London – that is the parlous state of new literary fiction in the UK, according to one of its top practitioners.
A L Kennedy, who won the Costa Prize in 2007 for Day, made her assessment while blasting the “self-defeating” publishing industry.
The novelist, who was on the 2013 judging panel for Granta’s prestigious Best of Young British Novelists (BYBN) list, blamed nervous agents and editors for not taking risks on new forms of writing.
“In a way you’ve got just six or seven novels which reappear now. I’ve done some judging over the last few years and it’s depressing what has happened to literary fiction,” she said on Thursday.
The exciting areas of fiction are now sci-fi and other niche areas, where publishers allow writers the freedom to be experimental, she said.
“It’s not the fault of writers. I know that new writing is still out there and it’s wild and wacky and crazy. It’s that a lot of other people are screening you, the readers, and saying: ‘No, you want the novel about thirtysomething people in Kensal Green again.’ For the 12th time. It is self-defeating but then most of British publishing is self-defeating.”
Among the writers chosen by Kennedy and her fellow panellists for the Granta BYBN list last year was Zadie Smith, who has set all of her novels in and around north‑west London and has spawned a generation of imitators.
Kennedy was reading from her new collection of short stories about romance, All The Rage, described last week by The Independent as “dark”, “terrifying” and celebrating love “like a hungry dog celebrates the corpse of a rabbit”.
Asked if she agreed with Hanif Kureishi’s comments at the festival earlier in the week that creative writing courses were pointless, Kennedy said: “I wasn’t aware that anybody had ever not thought that.”
Courses can be helpful in pointing out mistakes to budding writers, or giving them a “little toolkit” of tips for the future, she said. But she added: “The trouble with courses is that people would like, and I know I did, a golden key; a magic thing to make everything fine; a shortcut... and there aren’t any. A lot of it is just about slog, really. People really have to fail.”