LITERATURE: The glitter band

If you wanted to revisit 1850s England, Dickens would seem an obvious starting point. If, on the other hand, you wanted an insight into the years book-ended by Heath and Thatcher, the choice is more perplexing. You could just as easily, say, flick on UK Gold or pump up the Jam as hunt down a copy of 1985, Anthony Burgess's nightmare of an over-unionised UK.

The decentring of the novel is confronted by "All That Glitters", a South Bank Centre festival focus-ing on the Seventies. The second lecture looks at the apocalypse-laden fiction of the day, which was widely seen to be - like the country itself - in a state of grim, possibly terminal, recession. The title of Bart Moore-Gilbert's talk, "The Death of the Novel?", echoes that of a 1980 edition of Granta, "The End of the English Novel".

A lecturer in English, Moore-Gilbert argues that new writing in the Seventies had become attached to "narrative of decline. The publishing industry was hit by economic gloom and the readership of serious fiction seemed to be shrinking. There was widespread anxiety about the rise of visual media, and failing standards in education. There was also a feeling that the two main novelistic modes that had been dominant in the Fifties and Sixties, social realism and experimentalism, had become exhausted."

The other version of events is that the collapse of the consensus upon which many writers depended, particularly white, male middle-class ones, resulted in "a liberation of all sorts of subcultures that had been repressed". Rather than being a dead-end, Moore-Gilbert believes the Seventies represented a vital period of regrouping, by the end of which, the novel had found a route forward. Forthcoming highlights - Malcolm Bradbury (11 Mar), Carmen Callil on Angela Carter (21 Mar) and Germaine Greer, Erica Jong and Fay Weldon (25 Mar) - should reinforce the view that this particular stretch of memory lane, is not strewn, as is commonly supposed, with uncollected rubbish.

'All That Glitters' opens with Barbara Castle and Terry Eagleton on Tuesday, 3 Mar, 7.30pm, Purcell Room; 'The Death of the Novel?' 5 Mar, 7.30pm, Voice Box; all events SBC, SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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