English Literature: Nice Blokes and Good Girls Behaving Slightly Naughtily
No passion, no pain: BritLit heroes Hornby Bloke and Fielding Woman have created the perfect infantile anti-heroes for a nation that prefers its emotions 2-D. Time to grow up, says Boyd Tonkin
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 09 May 1998
Literary Review hand out an award for the
choicest piece of Bad Sex in new fiction. Its exact criteria have always baffled me. Sometimes the shortlisted passages sound like decent renderings of plausibly inglorious sex; sometimes, like duff descriptions of implausibly glorious sex. At any rate, I should never have gone to the party.
A throng of smartish literati brayed and hooted at each extract with the sort of boorish malice that brought to mind the ragging of a swot at public school. Clearly, what they despised most was not slapdash prose but sensuality, seriousness and (worst of all) passion. Bor-ing. Predictably, the evening ended in tears and a nasty mess on the carpet. Next day, an industrial cleaner was called in to the Royal Society of Literature.
Grimly detumescent or floridly orgasmic, the Bad Sex contenders all flouted the one rule that governs entry to the inner sanctum of the British book and media world. They had failed to show enough Self-Deprecating Irony in their treatment of men and women in lust and love (sorry; that should, of course, read lurrve).
The original SDI was Reagan's star-wars shield, designed to keep out Commie missiles. Britain's home-grown SDI erects an impregnable barrier of little feints and gags and mockeries that stops all life-threatening (ie life-changing) emotions dead in their tracks. Over all the verbal arts (from TV via fiction to journalism) a kind of wry, deflating comedy operates as the British-standard default setting.
We do it well without too much effort - on a par with old-fashioned bistro meals in provincial France or runs of Rigoletto at minor Italian opera houses.
The fatal error is to mix up this stylistic panache with any sort of authenticity. Look at the bizarre local cult that now surrounds the works of Nick Hornby and Helen "Bridget Jones" Fielding. Both artful and engaging writers, they never asked to become generational brand-names or lifestyle labels. Alas, they have. The Jones-clone with her nicotine count and ditsy dithering and dreams of Mr Darcy; the Hornby-gauge man with his hobbies and lists and Mr Bean-level of romantic expertise - these cartoon sketches have solidified into weighty figures of our time, feted by the upmarket media that would scoff at any tabloid sap who thought that Deirdre Rashid was really languishing in jail.
Yet these clever comic shadows have no more substance than the Weatherfield One. They move in a flat, two-dimensional space bounded by trademarks on one side, PopCult on the other, all mounted on a frame of the finest British Irony. Of course, both authors know this very well. Bridget Jones worked brilliantly as a joke about newspaper values - calorie-counting, health fads, trendy venues, TV fantasies - within a newspaper. As for Hornby, his latest self-lacerating hero spends the whole of About A Boy straining to escape from his own shallowness and break through to "the real stuff" beyond. Once he succeeds, the book ends - and life begins.
Remember, too, that Fever Pitch threaded soccer fandom into its memoir of life's other upsets and crises as a running metaphor - like the conceit in a 17th-century Metaphysical poem. (Well, the boy done English at Cambridge, after all.) No doubt Hornby truly thrills to Arsenal's triumph, but he never - for Wenger's sake - wrote a fulsome endorsement of sporting monomania. Yet Hornby Bloke, with Fielding Woman, now stalk the prints like fugitive monsters from the lab, out of control and well out of order.
Beyond the ironic realm of Bridget or Will spreads the 3-D existence that most people - yes, including thirtysomethings - lead, complete with highs much higher and lows much lower than you ever find on this attenuated middle-ground. As Will himself notices, you come across more "real stuff" in Nirvana lyrics or episodes of EastEnders than in his highly privileged half-life. So why should intelligent men and women pretend to themselves (and to one another) that these skimpy cut-outs represent everything they feel and need? The reason is that these books peddle a delicious dream of innocence. However scatty or inept, the protagonists lack guile - and guilt as well. At the end of High Fidelity, the sensible-shoes girlfriend, Laura, blesses record-shop Rob as "really very likeable, when you put your mind to it". He blunders around but means no harm; while Bridget is a ditz but not a bitch: Nice Blokes and Good Girls Behaving Slightly Naughtily.
Curiously infantile, this world without passion - and therefore real pain - also misses any sense of sin. In this golden country "sad" and "tragic" no longer mean sad and tragic; they mean "silly" and "irritating". Of course, it appeals - this Disney theme-park of modern love where the scary bits happen well out of shot. About A Boy does feature a suicidal single mum, but it briskly hauls her back to innocence by giving her the frizzy-haired, Joni Mitchell-warbling attributes of a funny old hippy straight out of stock.
One recalls those pre-revolutionary aristocrats who took a break from court intrigue to play at shepherds and shepherdesses. Islington cafes and Soho wine bars stand in for the gardens of Versailles; but Hornby and Fielding are still painting twee pastoral scenes. Meanwhile, the old English taste for sauce in the seaside-postcard or Carry On... mode has moved upscale a bit, but still endures in the giggly, fumbly view of sex. From one angle, Bridget looks like Barbara Windsor with a degree, while feckless, devious Will (who fabricates a child to help him seduce lone mothers) has a touch of the designer-clad Sid James about him. Erotic it ain't. Sometimes, one longs for a brave soul to fund a Good Sex award, just to encourage British novelists to raise their sights a bit.
So, when couples mention that they identify themselves or (more frequently) their partners with Bridget or the Hornby boys, I tend to take it with a marsh of salt. One assumes that this is harmless but gratifying role-play, just as much as if they chose to dress up on weekends as firemen or French maids. These nice-but-dim guys, these sweet-but-scatty girls, all belong to a fairyland that borders on the blissful territory first colonised by P G Wodehouse. Hornby's Will (who doesn't have to work because his father wrote a corny Christmas standard) is as much a pampered drone as Bertie Wooster ever was. He simply lacks a Jeeves.
It's all good, and improbably clean, fun. Which is great, so long as everybody grasps that desire - or despair - often crosses the line where Self-Deprecating Irony ceases to function as a tradeable currency. If we do, fine. If not, and we mistake this pleasant patch of turf for the richer "reality" that eludes winsome Will, it wouldn't be just sad. It could be positively tragic
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