Books of the pop age? They won't hear of it

The Booker sees itself as a celebration of British literature. But it is more like a wake
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The Independent Online
It doesn't matter who wins. This year's Booker nominees offer uniform pleasures. The prose is controlled. The content is wistful. The stories tell of the past, childhood, innocence lost. In these pages, you can read of the Coronation and the "hit parade" of 1953. You can experience a childhood in the 1940s. You can watch politely as Edwardian England slides into the abyss. The popular currents of the present are hardly felt.

The Booker isn't exactly like this every year. The 1993 award to Roddy Doyle was a moment when the award and the public nodded briefly to each other in the street. And the 1994 award to the "bruised demotic Glaswegian" of James Kelman (in one critic's words) did attempt to be modern. But in the end, every year really is the same.

Each set of judges exists in a rarefied universe in which all "literature" is understood to be "high": where words are to be used with refinement, and content is a game to be played. They are judges in a defeated world, where tinkering with the past (AS Byatt's Victoriana, Beryl Bainbridge's Edwardian simulacra) are applauded as the height of modernity, and straining stylistic novelty (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes) is a sign of life. It is prize-giving day in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm dismissed as the "elite ghetto", the day when the dwindling band of traditional literati can hug each other warm, gifted an illusion of popularity on a food company's whim. The Booker sees itself as a celebration of British literature. But it is more like a wake. No wonder one of this year's contenders is about the sinking of the Titanic. (And the favourite, Graham Swift, writes as if Britain is gently sinking, too.)

If this were truly the state of British literature, one could hardly blame the Booker. But what makes the award so maddening, even damaging, is that contrary to the complacency of its judges and the nostalgia of its nominees, British fiction did not die in 1960. Rather, in its most energetic practitioners, it has embraced the vitality of British culture since then - from the noisy smash-and-grab of pop to the stylistic wonders of cinema, from dismissed pulp fiction to underground art. To the Booker grandees, this other British literature may look like the circling of barbarians at the gates. But to readers starved of life by the award's dead hold on what literature is seen to be, they are the cavalry.

This British literature began when the Booker version died: with The Beatles. It was their celebration of a Britain of superficiality, fashion and pop that told "high" literature its time was up. But as they sent one tradition into decline, they stimulated another into being.

Michael Moorcock was one of the first to give this Britain a voice. Moorcock was driven "half crazy" with joy by the sounds of the Sixties. His Jerry Cornelius novels, begun in 1965, were his response. They mythologised this new Britain, in which Beatles songs were played as sacred mantras and London was imbued with decadent glamour. Taking from Burroughs and the lowest science fiction, Moorcock's style was new and natural, cutting up British reality into parts of jagged sensuality. His fiction was related not to the day's literary relics - Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis - but to the visionary cinema of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell.

He was not alone. 1963 saw the debut of JG Ballard. While Moorcock wandered London, Ballard roamed the spaces beyond it. He did not despair of the barrenness (as any Booker winner would). He filled it. Less interested in pop, Ballard took from other new forms - the iconography of dead movie stars, the geography of motorways, the obscenity of the nightly news - and re-imagined them as prose of crystalline, impacted beauty.

In 1965, he was joined by Angela Carter, who added music-hall coarseness, fairy-tales and a prose of saturated sensuality. There were others, pushing this new "tradition" far past the Sixties: Iain Sinclair, who tramped through London doing tedious jobs till he had categorised the city's mutating myths in prose which drew from Moorcock and Ballard and the Beats, the secret cinematic visions of Stan Brakhage, murder autopsies and his own poetry; King's Cross's epic poet Aidan Dunn; Iain Banks, Hanif Kureishi, Irvine Welsh, even the bursting prose of Salman Rushdie, who established the Booker as an event and was surely awarded it by mistake.

It has been an explosion. Seeing only its peaks, it is hard to believe that British fiction has ever been more awake to the world, more alive and inclusive. But the Booker is not about explosions. It is a centre so still you would not think there was a storm. It enjoys Victorian parlour games, not atrocity exhibits. It does not turn the radio on for pop. There are sorts of writing which it simply cannot recognise. It shortlisted Empire of the Sun, the nearest Ballard has come to a "literary" novel. But his more typical work has been ignored. Moorcock's entree to respectability, Mother London, had to settle for a Whitbread shortlist. Angela Carter's last novel was notoriously snubbed, as she lay on her deathbed. Dismissive of "Booker shortlist victims", she would not have cared; but there has been a parting of the ways. There is literature. And there is the Booker.

It is a separation which has been felt at every level of British writing. As the Booker and the culture it represents insist, year after year, that literature is only the sum of each year's insipid winners, many good writers no longer want anything to do with literature as the Booker defines it. Some prefer the mulch of genre, where writing's crudest, quickest energies can be tapped. In this overlooked field, Ramsey Campbell's schizoid horror, Clive Barker's Blakeian visions and the grubby thrillers of Derek Raymond lie. Here, too, Iain Banks, who began with a horror novel, sardonically adds an M to his name when he writes science fiction, knowing few critics will admit he is the same man.

Others have left literature altogether. Alan Moore, one of the most serious and respected writers Britain produced in the Eighties, wrote comics; he thought the medium more appropriate for what was becoming a "post-literate" age. Even writers who have bothered to write novels no longer limit themselves to that medium. Hanif Kureishi's books may be important to him, but so are his films. They let the public hear the pop music in his head.

Irvine Welsh is typical of the state things have reached. He has become the only novelist of the Nineties to reach pop-literate readers on their own terms. He did not do so by following the precedents that the Booker depends on. He did not do so by writing nice sentences. He did so because he went to raves. As the Booker judges ignore such voices, year after year, they may think they are preserving British fiction. But really, they are choking the life from it.

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