Howard Jacobson: Spy garbage, sex garbage, write what you like - but leave the novel alone

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Reverberations from an explosive article in The Atlantic Monthly – that high-toned journal of Bostonian letters – reached me this week. A sustained attack on the contemporary literary novel in America by BR Myers. Take it as indicative of my open-mindedness that I didn't send Mr Myers a dozen bottles of 1990 Bollinger before reading the article. Anyone who declares from the off his disdain for the works of Don DeLillo, E Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy has a right to one's undying gratitude. Even so, I thought it behoved me to check out what he had to say. Just in case I found myself wanting to send him two dozen.

The "literary novel". What kind of jumped-up tautology is that anyway? You didn't hear anyone talking about the "literary novel" when Don Quixote appeared in print. No mention of literary novel when Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, or Northanger Abbey come to that, even though Northanger Abbey really is a literary novel in that it parodies a literary fashion. Once upon a time, people only otherwise called a novel literary when they meant to bury it. A literary novel was a failed novel – bookish, derivative, lacking life. Literary – oof! You didn't want that said about you.

You still don't. Disinterred by publishers, the phrase "literary novel" is now intended to be value-free, denotive of a category of work with worthy intentions that you probably won't want to read unless it wins the Booker prize. But we who write them resist the change. Why are we the ones who have to be newly defined? A novel is a novel. If booksellers must distinguish between novels as we've always understood them – DH Lawrence's bright books of life – and the rest, then let the rest bear the brunt of their own departure from serious purpose. There are novels and there's garbage. The real thing and the rubbish. What do you write Mr Naipaul? I write novels. And you, Mr Crichton? I write garbage.

What's wrong with that? Divide the garbage up if you must know where you stand. Spy garbage, sex garbage, nice-guy cosy knitted cardigan guaranteed not to cause intellectual offence to anyone between the ages of 19 and 34 garbage. Take all the room you need. Just leave the novelists alone.

Once publishers decided to call anything half-decently written literary, they began to alienate the reading public from it. And once a writer loses all living connections with his readers, he starts to be literary. Thus is the prophecy self-fulfilled.

This process goes some way to explaining why the literary novelist in America writes such posy tosh. The other explanation relates to the sort of English that was being written and spoken by some English men and women when the Pilgrim Fathers set sail. Euphuistic, it was called, after a character invented by John Lyly. "The chief features of euphuism," as understood by the Oxford English Dictionary, are "the continual recurrence of antithetic clauses in which the antithesis is emphasized by means of alliteration; the frequent introduction of a long string of similes all relating to the same subject, often drawn from the fabulous qualities ascribed to plants, minerals and animals; and the constant endeavour after subtle refinement of expression."

Ring any bells? That's right, almost every American writer you've ever read. And don't tell me Roth and Mailer don't sound like that. They caught a later boat. Otherwise it's a literary time-warp over there. They've kept the past warm for us. It you want to know how the more fantastical of your Elizabethan ancestors might have sounded, read E Annie Proulx, almost anagram of One Prolix Nun. Better still, get your hands on a copy of the August issue of The Atlantic Review – which won't be easy – and read Mr Myers's hilarious compilation of her and her compatriots' barbarisms.

Hilarious isn't one of my words. I use it by way of doffing my cap to our humourless ancestors across the sea. Hilarious as in funereal. Hilarious in the American sense of nothing remotely amusing having happened for 500 pages. Like the recommendation "funny" on the back of an Anne Tyler novel. Funny? Could you tell me precisely where? Mr Myers is good on this subject. Abject gratitude is how he explains it. Abject gratitude, on the part of critics, whenever they find the remotest sign that a literary novelist is "actually trying to entertain them for a change".

Note the trying. A man after my own heart, Mr Myers. Not only is he radically unamused by what passes for mirth in the American "literary novel", he strikes a blow for British genius – observing that the cultural élite that falls about with hacking laughter over DeLillo is the same cultural élite that "never quite 'got' the British comic novel". Bingo!

But then Americans don't "get" irony full stop, we say, as though not getting irony is only a minor failing, comparable to not being good at map-reading. In fact, when it comes to the writing and reading of novels, lacking irony is the biggest disqualification there is. Remember Kundera: "The novel is, by definition, the ironic art." If you don't get that vexation of seriousness which is irony, you don't get anything.

Leaving you, in Mr Myers's phrase, with the "standout sentence" as the only measure of good prose, and such offences against the human intelligence as One Prolix Nun's "furious dabs of tulips stuttering" and Cormac McCarthy's "in the dark before the day yet was".

Not every good novel is funny, but no good novel was ever written without a sense of the ridiculous. End of story.

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