Howard Jacobson: The future of the novel belongs to Thomas the Tank Engine

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The Independent Online

Last night I dreamed Enid Blyton won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was at the ceremony. Flanked by the Famous Five – Anne (Bronte), Dick (Ford), George (Eliot), Julian (Barnes), and Timmy the dog – I cheered until my throat was hoarse. Henry (James) made the presentation. "She is," he said, meaning Enid, "a signal instance, perhaps the signal instance, of the way the form, in all its effortless felicities, yet, it has to be affirmed, with none of its small awkwardnesses or embarrassments, at the last – hence this lighting of our little torch – infallibly operates."

"Woof, woof!" shouted Timmy.

I can't pretend it is the first time I have dreamed a dream of this sort. On a rough calculation I would say I have been dreaming it once a month, starting a couple of years ago when Thomas Harris's Hannibal was published. Nothing to do with the gory content of the book, everything to do with the gory content of literary journals and the culture pages of our newspapers, where the word was that Hannibal put to shame the serious novel as we currently conceive and write it.

Since it became quickly apparent, reading Hannibal, that it failed at every level to be a book for adults, there was no other conclusion to draw but that there was a move afoot – don't ask me how co-ordinated – to discredit the serious novel, if not the very concept of seriousness, altogether.

More recently, dating from whenever it was that one started to see grown-ups carrying Harry Potter Omnibuses in the street – self-consciously if not shamefacedly, with that malapert "I am not embarrassed to acknowledge the child in myself" expression – the assault on seriousness from people who should know better has become a daily occurrence.

Whether Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, thought it was seriousness, exactly, he was attacking the other month when he pronounced the novel dead and non-fiction alive and kicking, I do not know. But no one who grasps the serious workings of the novel – how its untruths operate, by what means its comedy and its digressions confute history and ideology – could ever suppose that non-fiction, however brilliant, could replace it.

In fact, Andrew Marr inadvertently concedes as much, confiding that his favourite practitioners of the form he is keen to bury include Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons; which is the equivalent of declaring English football a dead loss on the strength of having watched Andover Town play out a scoreless draw with Pontefract United.

And so it goes. Writing in this very paper last week, Natasha Walter complained about the state of adult fiction and enthusiastically prepared us for the possibility of a children's book winning the Booker Prize. Of course, she said, the works in question – for it would seem there's more than one – lack "any sense of irony and any accommodation to the disappointments of the real world". But what kind of disqualification is that, when all is said and done?

All we need do now is loosen the implicit requirement that a prize-winning novel should demonstrate power of mind and knowledge of human nature, the skill to delineate life with wit and passion, in language which apprehends the sensuous and interior worlds with more than usual vitality, and there is nothing to stop Jackie Collins, let alone the author of Thomas the Tank Engine, walking away with the cheque.

Which, if she means what she says, is exactly what Amanda Craig would like to see happen. Taking Beryl Bainbridge to task for lamenting the pointlessness of much popular fiction, Amanda Craig invokes the virtue of entertainment, noting that too many serious authors seem to have forgotten that it is their duty to provide it.

Assuming that there is no more to say about the matter, that we all know what entertainment is and that there is no qualitative difference between one sort and another – only quantitative, measured by however many weeks on the best-seller lists – she comes (as how could she not?) to the conclusion that those sell best which best entertain, and that those that don't, don't.

To which my answer, for what it's worth, is that I am much more entertained by Beryl Bainbridge than I am by any writer (assuming you can find a writer) heading the best seller lists at the moment, not least as the workings of intelligence entertain me more than the workings of fatuity. Unless, that is, one conceives gawping at fatuity as a species of entertainment comparable to taking tea in Bedlam.

It cannot be said too often that where literature, as indeed where all art is concerned, the proof of the pudding is not in how much is eaten. "Entertainment" is not an inviolable or indivisible entity. The more educated our taste, the more demanding of that which might make for "entertainment" we become. We should take to heart Hamlet's words to the visiting actors, instructing them how not to declaim verse. "Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others."

To embrace the virtues of the child, to shy from what's serious because the numbers stack up on the side of what isn't, is to capitulate to the laughter of the unskilful. If we truly cared about the whole theatre, we would not indulge its ignorance, but teach it to be judicious.

Judiciousness, though, is not much in favour at the moment – as Enid observed with a shy smile in the course of her acceptance speech last night.

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