Tim Lott: Our land changes by the hour, but novelists have nothing to say

There are plenty of good writers, but where are the novels that tackle the big issues

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:37

The Hay Literary Festival finishes today, and I have spent four days there. It was pleasant, diverting and convivial. What it wasn't – at least on the fiction front, which constitutes an increasingly small part of the Hay programme – was exciting or challenging.

This, I hasten to add, has little to do with the Hay organisers. It is because English literature itself has become merely pleasant, enjoyable and polite. It is no longer vital, no longer vibrant, no longer the place to go to feel out the rhythm of the heart of the country in which it exists.

This is not one of those "death of the English novel" pieces. On the contrary, I think there have probably been more good English novels published in the past couple of decades than in any other comparable period in modern history. The form, commercially, is thriving and the quality is high. The problem is a dearth of important novels. The problem is one of excitement, relevance, ambition.

This isn't a global problem. I would genuinely be excited to see Coetzee, Roth, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, E L Doctorow, Michel Houellebecq, Jonathan Frantzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Bernard Schlink, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo or Chuck Palahniuk at Hay – because they have written not just good, but important books. In my view, no English novelist can make that claim, perhaps not since Golding with Lord of the Flies, or perhaps even before that, with Orwell's 1984.

A shocking claim, perhaps, but I am not alone in believing it. Every two years I go to the Prince Maurice Prize in Mauritius, where I spend a week or two with at least 10 leading writers from the British literary establishment. I always bring up the subject of the "great English novel", and not one of the many novelists I have spoken to over the years has come up with a convincing nomination.

What about Midnight's Children? Not a single novelist has been prepared even to contemplate that redoubtable Booker of Bookers, as a "great book", an important book, or even a readable book. It might be admired, but it isn't much loved.

And a great novel should be loved. It shouldn't just be well thought of, or recognised as "tasteful" or "intelligent" or "elegiac" or some such hokum. If you're thinking about how well written a piece of literature is, then it probably isn't a great piece of literature.

We do have terrific writers. My own very long list would include Sarah Waters, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Coe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and most of the usual suspects. I have greatly enjoyed all these writers' novels, and recognise them as authors of very high quality. But I don't think any of them would claim to have written a "great" novel or even a particularly important one.

If I want to find out what is happening in the landscapes of Lahore, Tripoli, Calcutta, Bhopal or Biafra, I could do worse than trawl through the recent Booker and Orange shortlists. What I will singularly fail to find is some real engagement in what has happened over the past 20 years in the country I inhabit and seek most urgently to make sense of.

There are tender and deft sketches of the migrant experience, notably by Monica Ali, Andrea Levy and Rose Tremain. And such portraits are self-evidently to be welcomed. But the truth is they tell us little about the great majority of people living in England today. We have no Dickens to do that for us. No Trollope, no Orwell. Not even a David Storey or an Alan Sillitoe. And who has written a novel about a Muslim fundamentalist in Luton or Bradford? Or a Polish builder?

The writers who have come closest to writing an important work of literature in recent years are simply not naturalists. D B C Pierre, David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas and Susanna Clarke have all written books that were genuinely fresh voices – but the first was a satire set in America and the other three were verging on fantasy or even science-fiction. Our other most interesting writers are either children's writers, or crossovers. Philip Pullman, David Almond and Mark Haddon all spring to mind. But where are their equivalents in the documentary tradition? Where is the young black novelist telling us about life on the estates as we have been told in the films Kidulthood and Bullet Boy? If I have missed them, that says as much about the publishing system as if they weren't written in the first place.

Where are the lives of the young working-class mother? Where is the hoodie telling us about life on the estates of the Wirral or Corby? Where is the story of the destitute, so well captured by Orwell in the 1930s? Where is the great satire on celebrity culture, on English MPs, on CCTV, on the threat to our liberties? Where is the voice of an Anglican vicar, a fairground worker, a nurse, a family lawyer, a petty thief, a BNP supporter, a pensioner running out of options, a paedophile, or a community driven by the fear of a paedophile?

These are a few of the very many stories that seem to be missing. Yes, Ian McEwan set his Saturday on the day of the march against the Iraq war, but it wasn't his finest moment. The contemporary English realist novel is attractive to publishers as an idea, but not as a reality which they can market. And the market is what rules now. No one can go with an interesting idea and just run with it without a legion of marketeers and publicity people. Which is why it is dull. No truly interesting book was ever published by committee.

There are one or two exceptions to this great hole at the heart of English naturalism. The Illumination of Merton Browne by J M Shaw takes us compellingly inside a gangland council estate. Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts which although mildly surrealist captured something essential about oddness of life in England today. The brilliant satires on modern life of Alexei Sayle (the only comedian worth his salt as a novelist) are contemporary gems. But mainly if I want to know about Britain or to find out about exciting ideas, I read non-fiction, or go to the theatre, cinema, or an exhibition of photography.

Part of the reason for this lack of vigour is that literature has become an ordinary middle-class occupation rather than a calling. It is no longer an outsider activity, the work of an artist. It is for people who publishers think will write sellable books. The outsider writer, the radical, the oddball is in danger of disappearing. I can count the number of conversations I've had with novelists about ideas over the past 10 years on the fingers of one hand. I would need a lot more appendages to count the number of conversations about advances, house prices etc. Writers have become mainstream – and it shows. The idea of them "living it", as Orwell did, seems too much like hard work.

There are great writers out there. But none of them are English, or at least writing about the English experience. Perhaps the worst thing about modern writers is not that they are unambitious so much as lazy. For when was England more interesting, more divided, more in the grip of frenetic change, more undermined by fear than during the past 20 years?

English literature has lost touch with an important part of its function: to tell us who we are, where we are going and to help us understand our lives. Until a generation of writers comes along to fulfil this function, and a generation of publishers that will give them a voice, writing will remain as safe and reassuring as a suburban book club.

Hay stands testimony to the fact that novelists have become as marginalised as generators of ideas, of prophecy and of vision. And perhaps, when all is said and done, the margins are where we – staid, safe and market driven – now properly belong.

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