Drugged by gentle stories, a Scotsman in New York

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IN A recent interview Sir V S Naipaul said he had given up reading modern novels. They didn't interest him, he said. Novels had reached their peak and fulfilled their greatest function in the 19th century. Now they had become an exhausted literary form, an inadequate way of looking at the world. He no longer needed what he described as "the drug of the narrative", a phrase which over the past few weeks in my own life has seemed increasingly apt. I edit Granta magazine and, as a judge in its Best of Young American Novelists campaign, I have been required to read more than 50 novels and short story collections. As the aim is to identify 20 of a new generation of American writers who show the most talent and promise, I can hardly share Naipaul's diagnosis of the worth of their trade - ie, that they are wasting their time - but drugged by stories is what I certainly feel.

Most people think that reading a novel is easy. They're right; it is. Take the novel to bed, turn several pages, fall asleep. The problems come when you need to read 50 novels in the space of seven weeks, and to read them as duty rather than diversion. The necessary tools here are silence, a notebook, a chair uncomfortable enough to keep you awake, and a conscience that forbids you to skip large chunks in the middle. You can then, even with a day job, get through a shortish novel every day if you wake early and stay up late. I wouldn't defend this activity as work, but the result for me has often been a stupefying sense of dislocation. A novel that sets out to be moving will, if it's any good, move you. A novel set in Mississippi needs to make you feel that you're there among the catfish farms. Every day this year I've been entering another set of lives in other landscapes, and, when the story is over and the drug is wearing off, being surprised to find myself making tea in a north London kitchen rather than weeping over a grave in North Carolina.

NOW I am in New York to reach a judgement with my fellow judges. The writers Robert Stone and Tobias Wolff have made their lists and so have I. We met the other day in the library of Stone's club, the Lotos, which is just off Central Park and has the early-century looks of a small palace made for railroad millionaires. There, under a portrait of Andrew Carnegie, we traded novelists' names and spoke by conference telephone to a fourth judge, the writer Anne Tyler, who was reluctant to leave her home in Baltimore. Instead of whispered tips about stock prices ("Southern Pacific looks a good buy") we talked about "interiority" and characterisation and plot, which seemed somehow too effete for a building that suggested anger and telegrams. The interesting and refreshing thing was how quickly that kind of refined literary evaluation was sometimes discarded for the bluntly subjective. "So why didn't you like it?" "I just didn't. I guess maybe I read it at the wrong time of day." So much for interiority and narrative strategies.

THE TROUBLE was that there were no bad books on the list. Every night, reading at home, I'd hoped to find a book so plainly dislikeable from the first page that I could toss it down and get on to the next one. No such book emerged. Whatever the faults of the modern American novel, and however much they may be blamed on America's many creative writing schools, it knows the ways of the narrative drug: the quick hit that leads to dependency. In other words, it is good at telling stories - better in this respect than many literary novels written now in Britain.

Another large difference, it seems to me, is the kindness of American fiction. The books I read were never brittle, hardly ever satirical and rarely violent either in action (though suicides were a favourite feature) or in language. The scale was mainly domestic and often rural. The family may be in crisis in the American novel as it is in American life, but writers are still keen to depict it. Like most people, I get my impression of the USA mainly from television and the cinema and I think of it as anarchic. These books revealed a steadier, more individually troubled place. Their prose is obstinately unflashy; you can go a long way in many of these stories and never meet a semi-colon. The spareness, and the many acknowledgements to grants and help received from writing tutors that precede the title pages, make American fiction seem much more of an industry, or perhaps a learned craft like carpentry, than English writing. But it takes you to places that many young English writers, shaded by the great trees of Rushdie and Amis, have never learned how to visit: the domestic interior, parents and children, with words such as "tractor", "divorce" and "God" making their unsteady appearance on the horizon.

ON the morning of the judging, Robert Stone took me on a ramble round the part of Manhattan where he spent his childhood 50 years ago and which now lies at the northern extremity of "safe" New York. To the south, the Upper East Side, professional poodle walkers with poop-scoops, small galleries selling post-Impressionists. To the north, Harlem, poverty and crime. The boundary is 96th Street. To some extent, this street has always marked a social division. Just to the north of it the railway tracks that are hidden under Park Avenue come out of the tunnel to glisten in the open air, and property values consequently descend. But now the difference is infamously stark. Within one block you move from the world where many people write novels, edit novels, publish novels, discuss novels, to a world where almost nobody reads them and where the drug of printed fiction has long since lost its power.

Joan Smith is away.