Yes, our novelists are a bit piddling

Capturing trends, writers ingratiate themselves by providing a pointless thrill of recognition
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The Independent Culture
IN THE woods, the cuckoo is calling. In parks, the goalposts are coming down. And at this time of annual change and renewal, as the literary world's first book prizes come into bloom, some academic or critic will pronounce that British fiction is past it - trivial, self-obsessed and drearily small-minded.

In the past, George Steiner, Professor Lisa Jardine or James Wood have delivered the verdict; this year's springtime sneerer is Lola Young, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University and chairwoman of the 1999 Orange Prize for fiction written by a woman.

The British novels she and her fellow judges had read were insular, parochial and "tended towards the domestic in a piddling sort of way", Professor Young has said. To prove the point, the shortlist drawn up for this British-based prize consisted of four Americans, a Canadian and a single Englishwoman, Julia Blackburn.

Traditionally at this point, stalwarts of the literary establishment draw themselves up like outraged maiden aunts and protest that nobody does it better, that our female novelists are the envy of the world. Auberon Waugh, that great expert on the modern novel, was this year "particularly upset for Beryl", a reference to Beryl Bainbridge, who now has the saintly status of a Queen Mother-like figure in book circles. Beryl herself scoffed at the idea of a cultural studies professor knowing anything about fiction, adding wittily that it was piddling critics and judges who were the true problem.

That, one thinks, surely must be the case. After all, British women writers are never out of the newspapers, either being written about or writing about themselves. As for seriousness, there's Doris Lessing, Rose Tremain, A L Kennedy and... well, loads of others.

At which point, the awful thought occurs that, just possibly, Professor Young could be on to something. Books may be fashionable and new young novelists, female and male, are clearly making more money from publishers' advances and translation rights than ever before, but the absorption of fiction into the cultural mainstream has perhaps been achieved at a price. Most serious readers of fiction would have to agree that there is indeed something tediously self-absorbed and small-time about many of the novels published today.

British writers like to argue that setting a story on this small, overcrowded island, where class and the past are so much part of our national consciousness, is in itself limiting. Imagine, they say, Jane Smiley's magisterial domestic tragedy, A Thousand Acres, set not on the rolling farmlands of the American Midwest but in Warwickshire, or Updike's Rabbit Angstrom as a car salesman from Croydon.

Several of our most successful writers have solved the problem by ducking it altogether. Louis de Bernieres, Sebastian Faulks and Philip Kerr explicitly set their novels abroad to avoid dealing with class. Peter Ackroyd prefers the historical or futuristic to the contemporary. Martin Amis, having created a weirdly Americanised west London landscape, has moved his fiction to the States and threatens to follow it himself.

But the more one thinks of Professor Young's verdict on modern fiction by women, the clearer it becomes that it is not material that limits our writers. Many of the best writers in North America - Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, Ann Tyler, Alice Munro, Sue Miller - universalise the stuff of small lives and intimate experience.

The problem is within the culture itself: whereas, in America, writing fiction is an honoured profession whose leading practitioners support themselves by teaching in universities or on creative writing courses, here we tend to regard such behaviour as suspect and self-indulgent. Somewhere along the line, the idea has taken hold that the serious modern novelist should be out there, doing the parties, surfing the culture, as chatty and busy as any style columnist.

The effect of this compromise, this sellout to journalism, publicity and "relevance", can be found on the pages of many contemporary novels. Brand names take the place of characterisation; writers are satisfied merely to capture a trend or a moment, ingratiating themselves with readers by providing a brief, pointless thrill of recognition. Spurred on by publishers, young novelists have realised that the easiest way to be noticed is to goose up their fiction with real experience and real pain.

Memoir, journalism, novel: in the hot new culture, the divisions are blurred. Books and their publicised authors may suddenly be hip, profitable and fashionable - but, sadly, it's only in a piddling sort of way.