The Novel Now, by Richard Bradford

Clever as hell
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The Independent Culture

Like many books about the state of contemporary fiction, The Novel Now takes its cue from a symposium on that enticing subject which appeared in the final number of a highly obscure literary magazine, The New Review, back in 1978. Re-read in the cold light of early 21st-century dawn, this is an entertaining document, full of misguided predictions (Ian McEwan thought that "the best fiction of the next 10 years will be generated by the women's movement and its peripheries") but striking one or two genuinely prophetic notes. In particular, a talented juvenile named Martin Amis could be found suggesting that, if he tried really hard, he could just about imagine "a novel that is as tricksy, as alienated and as writerly as those of, say, Robbe-Grillet while also providing the staid satisfactions of pace, plot and humour with which we associate, say, Jane Austen".

Amis, as Richard Bradford more than once acknowledges, was on to something here, not merely with regard to his own novels, but in respect of a great deal of the "serious fiction" (not, you imagine, a distinction which inclusively minded Dr Bradford would be too keen on) that got written over the next quarter century. Conventional readings of the British novel since 1945 generally assume a series of advances and retreats by diametrically opposed forms: a post-war wave of writers (Amis senior, William Cooper, C P Snow) who felt threatened by modernism trying to reinstall "19th-century classic realism", eventually - with one or two notable exceptions - swept away by a post-modern tide wedded to the idea of fracture, fret and narratival mucking about.

In reality, Bradford insists, this division is far too reductive. Fifties realism, as practised by Kingsley Amis, was apparently a mutant variation in which "the author no longer felt beholden to any fixed or determining set of social or ethical mores". In much the same way, he argues, the "literary" novelists of the past 20 years are characterised less by procedural solidarity than a series of magpie borrowings: what unites them is merely their eclecticism, the range of techniques, devices and effects that contribute to the framing they think appropriate for their work.

This pick and mix approach to literary form even gives Bradford a new critical tag by which to describe ornaments of the current fictional scene such as Ali Smith, David Mitchell and company. They are "domesticated post-modernists", don't you know, clever as hell, wildly enthused by the charm of altered states, mental disembodiment and unreliable narrators but sufficiently in thrall to the idea of conventional storytelling to sell lots of copies and emerge with the reader on their side. Or, as he somewhat grandly puts it, "They create fictional scenarios that are precipitately and self-evidently bizarre and implausible and in doing so they both entertain the fashionably accomplished reader and confirm that the actuality of existence outside the novel is by implication reassuringly normal."

Here Bradford is making an important point. Zeitgeist-hungry theorists of the Eagleton/Baudrillard school usually maintain that writers are merely symptoms of a wider aesthetic condition, that a David Mitchell, say, writes a novel like Cloud Atlas because he lives in a post-modern world. Bradford, on the other hand, seems to be arguing that you can have your fictional cake and eat it, dress yourself up in as many theoretical glad-rags as you like while still admitting that life, as the Marxists used to say, is " ordinary" and avoiding the customary snare of any endeavour involving the words "literary theory" - that is, boring the reader stiff. All this sets up a series of pointed discussions on such topics as the novel of Thatcherism, sex, class, Englishness and the Celtic hinterlands, nearly always framed, internal evidence suggests, with a single quarry in mind. This is literary academia, damned by Bradford for its obfuscation, its arrogant colonising of the critical environment and, above all, for its non-judgmental neutrality, that engrained seminar room reluctance to offer "an opinion on whether or not the novel or the author are any good".

If there is a minor criticism to be levelled at what in general is a top-notch survey, it is that books of this kind habitually degenerate into lists. Now and again, too, Bradford convicts himself of the same crime rightly ascribed to Professor X of the University of Neasden. It may very well be that Jeanette Winterson is, as Bradford puts it, "writing about writing: exercising a control over language and its possibilities in order to guarantee for herself a special state of independence from a predominantly male, heterosexual literary culture", but to what, if anything, do these exercises in girls-together solipsism amount? Shrewd and thought-provoking as most of the judgments are, one occasionally wants Bradford to go further, to stray, for example, into areas beyond his immediate aesthetic boundaries. A really up-to-the-mark account of the contemporary fictional scene would have to start by acknowledging that we inhabit a literary landscape whose commercial and environmental backdrop is almost actively geared to the production of bad art. On the other hand, perhaps Dr Bradford - who can expect a hot, nay incendiary, reception from his peers - has done enough to be going on with.