Talk about literature by all means, but just don't be fatuous about it

My position when students accused Jane Austen of having been an ostrich was unequivocal. I failed them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Can only be a coincidence, I know. Like all men, I dream of influencing events, but to suppose I could be a force for change at this level is past the size of dreaming. The fact remains, anyway, that ever since I complained of the triumphalist illiteracy of Coronation Street - how it routinely ridiculed all references to art or literature, how anyone who admitted to having read a word of anything other than Heat was portrayed as a prig or a bore - not an episode has gone by without an earnest discussion of works of the imagination. And now, to cap it all, the Street has its own book group. Yes, the usual culprits are at the centre of it, so it's still a talking shop for the prigs, the bores and the seriously peculiar, but a book group is a book group.

They haven't got it quite right yet. Norris would not, I think, be pushing for the group to read soft porn. Soft porn isn't where the illiterate who would be literate are just now. Myself, I'd back Norris to have his head in something more along the lines of crossover fiction, that pull-me-push-me genre that offers to appeal to all ages but in fact strands adults in a trance of semi-childlikeness from which there is little evidence that any of them ever again emerge. Nor can I decide whether it is in character for Ken Barlow to accuse Jane Austen of ignoring the Napoleonic Wars. I am familiar with the charge. In the days when I was an academic I heard it all the time. But would Ken have made it? He's self-righteously leftie enough, I grant you. But as a bit of a writer himself, a man touchy in the matter of his own sentences, wouldn't he be more sensitive to the self-sufficiency of the word? What we must ask then is this: would a person with any feeling for what we Leavisites used to call "the texture of the prose" ever stipulate the journey prose must go on?

I'm grateful to Coronation Street, anyway, for airing what I take to be a literary question of no small consequence: does it matter that Jane Austen did not overtly address the Napoleonic Wars? And by extension, does it matter whether or not a contemporary writer overtly addresses 11 September, Iraq, terrorism, or whichever issue we take it into our heads to believe is indispensable to an adequate understanding of our time?

As an academic, my own position when it came to students accusing Jane Austen of having been an ostrich was unequivocal. I failed them. If I could have failed them twice I would have. If I could have done to them what we are now entitled to do to someone we find burgling our house, I would not have hesitated. I like the idea that when someone ventures with malice into your domain they all but relinquish their human rights. The same when they venture into literary fatuity. Accuse Jane Austen of not writing about the Napoleonic Wars and you're dead.

The argument extends beyond the university. I recently saw a film of Mansfield Park which attempted to fill in the political lacunae. Not Napoleon, but colonialism and slavery. Mansfield Park, or The Horror, The Horror. For that's another of the fatuities which the memory of Jane Austen must abide - the charge that by her silence she became a sort of accomplice to the slave trade.

That there is a story associating the value system of a sometimes indolent middle class with the plantations that supported it, I do not doubt. But Jane Austen didn't write it. Nor is there any justification for thinking that the story Jane Austen didn't write is superior to the one she did. The slave trade does not of itself lend gravity to a novel. Nor would the Napoleonic Wars. Nothing lends gravity to a novel other than the gravity of the language in which it's written. You can write a trivial novel of the Holocaust, and a deeply serious one about a biscuit. This is true of all art. It is beyond politics or event - not by virtue of other-worldliness, but by virtue of other-mindedness. Art makes its own importance. For the very reason that it refuses the tyranny of external subject, it is the expression of our deepest freedom.

So for my money what goes on inside an American Jew's pants, to pluck an example at random, is of no less moment than what goes on inside the White House. We don't have to prefer Portnoy's Complaint to The Plot Against America. We can admire them equally. When a writer of such extraordinary versatility appears, we grab the lot with gratitude. But I find it hard to agree with the majority view that Philip Roth's most recent novels represent the flowering of his genius, in the first place because I find the vertiginous comedy of his earlier work more remarkable, and in the second because I think the current valuation (I do not say over-valuation) is based upon a misconception akin to that which demands the presence of Napoleon in Jane Austen's Bath. We are loving Roth today in a way we didn't quite love him yesterday because he seems now to be writing history. To which the answer is a) that's irrelevant, and b) he was always writing history anyway.

You have to know where history is. And if you don't accept that you're just as likely to find it inside someone's pants as inside the White House, then literature isn't what you're interested in at all.

They'd have liked Jane Austen more - those who don't - had she been less funny. Which is how they also prefer Philip Roth. A seriously mistaken idea of what's serious in art - that it becomes so only by virtue of addressing matters we have already decided to call serious, and that it must not laugh us on to another plane of seriousness altogether.

I hope Norris and Ken remember that.