One of my sharpest memories from student days is of traipsing the winter pavements of Oxford in December 1981, desperately searching for an unsold copy of Midnight's Children, thenearmarked as somebody's Christmas present. A month into the new year, Rushdie turned up at a college arts festival, and I picked my way through the January slush to luxuriate in his glow.
Midnight's Children was, and is, an exceptionally good novel, which has a strong claim – something that can only be said of one book in a generation – to have changed the face of English literature. Yet its influence on the fiction of the succeeding quarter-century has been almost entirely malign.
Why so? Midnight's Children coincided, and to some extent even inaugurated, both a sea-change in British writing and a revolution in the way that British writing got published. The book trade was in turmoil as the American conglomerates headed east; the future, every industry savant worth his salt declared, lay in better marketing. The "Best of British Young Novelists" promotion of 1983, in which Rushdie appeared with fresh-faced newcomers such as Martin Amis, Graham Swift and Julian Barnes, was a symbolic blast of razzamatazz.
Abetted by well-placed sponsors – academics, including Malcolm Bradbury, magazine editors such as Granta's Bill Buford – and sustained by advances of a kind never hitherto seen in publishing, a movement came into being that effectively captured the decade for a certain kind of tricksy, metropolitan, post-imperial British writing. What might be called the Granta generation's hold on contemporary England has never really relaxed in 25 years although the merits of what gets produced grow ever more dubious. For all his undoubted achievement, has Martin Amis ever written anything quite as good as Money (1984)? Has Rushdie, to put it yet more starkly, ever matched the work of his Eighties hey-day? The answers are "No" and "No".
By making the world safe for a certain kind of fiction, this promotional frenzy tended to exclude another kind, the quieter, less flamboyant, English-provincial kind. To pluck a few deserving names from the Booker's 40 years, it would be a shame if David Storey (Savile, 1976), and Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore, 1979) were overlooked in the gadarene dash to acclaim Salman Rushdie as the Dickens of our day.