Terence Blacker: Bourgeois angst? Life is too short


Related Topics

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. In our great national melting pot, one section of society is being systematically excluded from what we read or see on our screens. "There is this notion that the lives of the comfortably-off middle class don't merit being treated seriously and with compassion," the novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson has said. A publisher had once rejected his work with the brutal words, "I will not publish books about women who drive 4x4s."

It is all very heart-rending, and the air is already thick with cries of well-bred outrage. What about the Brontes? Or George Eliot? Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? Elizabeth Bennet "would definitely be driving a Volvo XC90 today," the novelist Jojo Moyes has written.

Yet who, if they are entirely honest with themselves, could deny that the publisher's instinct was right? The heart sinks at the idea of a novel, a play or TV series about a comfortably well-off woman who drives a 4x4, or indeed a Volvo XC90. It seems that either the middle class has become duller of late, or that something has happened to our sensibility as readers and viewers.

Areas of entertainment which once passed the time quite acceptably (a novel about adultery, a Home Counties sitcom, a Sunday night television drama about a dad being made redundant) seem to belong to another age. Beside the sharp bright colours of everyday life, these stories, with their wry humour and observation, their gentle tug of sadness, seem drearily pastel-shaded.

Nicholson has said that "a well-off plastic surgeon can suffer as much as an Irish lad who has been abused," but, even as he said these words, he must have sensed that the fight was lost. In a world full of absurdity, cruelty, heartbreak and laughter, a plastic surgeon could certainly engage the interest as a central character in, say, a satire on contemporary vanity or a creepy tale of medical abuse, but his sufferings? Sorry, life's too short.

It feels disloyal to write it – my own stories are peopled by middle-class characters – but there is a sense at the moment that bourgeois concerns no longer quite cut it. Our palate has been dulled by the sensational age in which we live. The best-seller lists are dominated by tales of childhood misery or by celebrity boasting. TV reality shows provide the instant gratification of mockery, triumph or embarrassment. As the past few days have shown, 24-hour news serves up as much scandal and drama as any soap opera.

Because most of society now clusters anxiously on the social middle ground, people have little interest in being entertained by things (frustration, depression, a general sense of missing out) which they can find in their own lives. When they pick up a book or switch on the TV, it is the high concept, the story which is distant from everyday reality which appeals.

Yet Nicholson is on to something. Perhaps it is not the comfortably-off who are out of fashion so much as stories about relationships. For a reader or viewer to become absorbed in character, and have sympathy for human dilemma, requires an effort. It is easier to respond to caricatures – the 4x4 woman, we can assume, is a cosseted yummy-mummy; the plastic surgeon is wealthy, but morally compromised.

Book publishing is a reactive industry; its executives are too busy to fret about the future of fiction. The editor who rejected Nicholson's story of middle-class life knew that it is not domestic life but large, dramatic ideas, the sweep of continents and migration, which snag the attention right now.

It is something of a British phenomenon – no one worries about what cars the characters of Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan drive – but it is one which affects what we read and watch. Right now, we are too distracted, too busy, to be detained by the intricacies of human nature.


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living