Why modern literary culture has lost the plot

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Pilgrims on the path to literature have been finding the going harder and harder. They want to follow the road to its promised destination, but they keep stumbling on the way. Often they meet diversions, which turn out to go nowhere at all. Frequently, despite its promise, the road peters out altogether.

Not many people mention their failed excursions into literary culture, because they are embarrassed to admit they found them so tough. But yesterday one soul spoke up for many: Philip Pullman, winner of the Carnegie medal for his children's book Northern Lights, used his acceptance speech to deride the fashion for ignoring stories in contemporary literature.

"In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance," he said. "Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. The present day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would."

Stories are a vital part of the way we understand and order the world. They are the stuff of our daily emotional communication. Bill Buford, writing in the New Yorker recently, argued that story-telling is actually on the way back because "they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives ... It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting."

Such words come like rain after drought for everyone who has struggled in vain with the "literary" writers of our age. How many readers listen to Mr Pullman and remember the time they shamefacedly gave up on the latest Salman Rushdie at page 12? How many experienced as much torment as enlightenment in the hands of Kazuo Ishiguru? How many struggled vainly with Ben Okri? Who really likes Martin Amis's The Information (as opposed to agreeing that they are in some way impressed by it?) In every case, the readers of these books know that they are consuming elegant, poised, brilliant, perceptive prose. But somehow they just couldn't keep going, because, well, it wasn't quite what they wanted.

Yet those writers, and many others along with them, are sold to us as being in the front rank of novelists today. Is it just possible that we are hearing false prophets? Or even, dare it be said, that a self-perpetuating literary elite is foisting its own sectional "value" on us?

If Dickens were writing today, he would probably be patronised, rather than lionised: an amusing popular entertainer. Jane Austen, probably, would encounter the same fate, on the grounds that her subject matter is trivial: domestic romance and the pursuit of marriage to rich men. George Eliot might have a certain success in the Booker stakes, and sell well in paperback, but she wouldn't quite make it to the ranks of the literary elite.

For we have reached the point where the cultural world admires Premier League writers, whom a few read, but fewer enjoy, while relegating those who write stories that people want to read from the first page to the last.

Then there are writers who are pigeonholed into their "genre". Thus, PD James is good - but only for a crime novelist. Iain Banks writes sci- fi, so he can't be wholly serious. Even William Boyd, one of the best story-writers in English today, isn't quite accorded the same respect as "intellectual" novelists.

It is symbolic that our literature students today are taught to deconstruct novels, not appreciate their construction. They know how to interpret the unsaid, and to weigh silences between the lines. Literature has disappeared into its own reflection.

Of course, some writers who sell millions are great story-tellers, and not much else. They don't open our eyes to anything much - and don't really claim to: writers from Ken Follett to Shirley Conran, Dick Francis to Georgette Heyer, offer the pleasure of a good tale that may subsequently be gaily forgotten, but kept us well enough enthralled at the time.

There is an unpalatable side to the blockbuster, too: its tendency to plump for formulaic and tedious plots as a substitute for imagination and invention, throwing in the right number of sex scenes, decapitated bodies, and the right measure of money-lust to ensure the book's film rights and a good lead in the Hollywood rewrite.

But that kind of low-grade entertainment has always been with us: it does not alter the fact that some strongly selling books (Elmore Leonard's crime novels, for instance, or John le Carre's spy stories) should rank along with the best literature of our times.

The danger of "literary" elitism is that we allow ourselves to be persuaded that a book with a story can't be quite the best (even though we have "intellectual" successes like The Name of the Rose to prove otherwise). When we were children, we knew better. We walked through Charles Ryder's low door in the wall, hand in hand with Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfield. We trusted them, and those stories stayed with us forever. The moment when the clock struck 13. When Charlie found his ticket to the chocolate factory. Apple pie beds in Mallory Towers. Ballet shoes.

Like Charles Ryder, we grew up and lost the key to that magic world. With the maturity of adulthood we learned to worry about impressing others with our intellect. We felt the need to impress our friends. We pandered to the cultured, educated classes. We discovered dinner parties. And so books changed their function. Instead of passports to another world they became status symbols of this one. The clock stopped striking 13.

Comments