Last year, 116,415 new books were published in the UK, of which 10,860 were works of fiction. Even reading at a rate of one novel or collection of short stories per day, it would take you 29 years, 8 months and 24 days to get through them all. By which time a further 322,900 would have appeared, and – many of them – disappeared. And that’s not taking into account the year on year increase: 10,860 is a rise of 10.8 per cent on 1999’s 9800. If that rate of growth persists, in the same year that you turn the last mouldering page of the last novel at the bottom of your millennial stack (2028, assuming you began in 2000), 191,840 new works of fiction will be published. Such an implausible figure suggests that the current rate of growth is unsustainable, a slump inevitable.
Well, maybe. And maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. ‘The novel’ – it’s said in certain quarters, and louder than usual, the perennial murmur swelling to a growl – is currently in crisis (again). Earlier this year, Andrew Marr certified it dead. (He was announcing the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction at the time. His verdict may prove to be no less premature than Johnson’s pronouncement on Sterne: ‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’) Responding to Marr’s comments, Ian Jack, the editor of Granta, suggested that it would be more accurate to say there was a ‘lull’. Since, then, Robert McCrum, the literary editor of the Observer, has discussed the question more than once in his column, ‘The World of Books’. And in a recent issue of the Guardian, Stephen Moss, that paper’s former literary editor, has asked: ‘Why do Rushdie, McEwan, Barnes and Amis still dominate Britain’s literary scene?’
Without so much as a flutter of irony, Moss quotes an anonymous ‘leading critic’ denouncing ‘the media’s obsession’ with Rushdie etc for ‘blocking the emergence of new writers’. The media’s obsession reflects a combination of idleness and herd instinct, or – to put it more kindly – caution. Everyone (in a certain narrow sense of the word) knows who Amis, Barnes, McEwan and Rushdie are, knows they’re known to be ‘critically acclaimed’, knows they all know each other. It’s nice and cosy in the cabin, while outside the ghosts of the year’s ten thousand other novels howl in the night. Except they don’t; that’s just the simple way to tell it. It’s much easier to say that ‘the novel’ is in irons, or even sinking, than it is to say something interesting.
The perceived problem is bound up in the perception of the problem, and both are connected to the sheer number of novels published each year. Whatever crisis there may be is as much to do with the concept of ‘the novel’ as it is with whatever that concept may refer to. How is it possible to distil ‘the novel’ from ten thousand? Obviously some – the overwhelming majority, in fact – have to be disqualified, but how do you decide on the lucky few that are to count? Moss’s point has more to do with celebrity than quality of writing; he’s talking about the type who, ‘as far as press and public are concerned, is not merely a writer but a Writer. We only have the mental space for about half a dozen (as with pianists, poets and painters).’ And if those half dozen all know each other, it makes it much easier, especially if you take into account what Moss calls ‘their chums from other disciplines – Clive James, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, Redmond O’Hanlon’. Together, novelists and ‘chums’ are not unlike a coterie of window-cleaners crowded onto a single boatswain’s chair (or rather bench): each time one of them tugs on his rope, they all move a little higher up the skyscraper of fame; each time one applies his chamois cloth to the glass, the rest of us, peering out from the gloom inside the building, see all their faces a little more clearly. Amis and Co aren’t the only gang of this kind, they’re just the oldest and the biggest. And it would be a mistake to assume that the biggest celebrities write the most interesting books: Robert Browning’s Pauline, for example, was self-published and, Browning later boasted, didn’t sell a single copy. Moss says that Rushdie and McEwan’s new books ‘will be the publishing events of September’, but that’s not the same thing as the best novels, and I would read The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace before Rushdie’s Fury (they’ll both be published on the same day).
In 1980, Bill Buford, then the magazine’s editor (he’s now fiction editor of the New Yorker), wrote a piece for Granta – included in Granta: The First 21 Years (Granta, £9.99) – called ‘The End of the English Novel’. He attacked the publishing industry for being insular and archaic, accusing it of continuing to practise as it had in the 19th century, when ‘the reading public was … the same throughout the country’ and ‘its members read in the same accent.’ But his conclusion is upbeat:
The old divisions and the old generalisations are no longer usable. The fiction of today is testimony to an invasion of outsiders, using a language much larger than the culture. The English novel has been characterised by the self-depictions of its makers’ dominance: the novel of sense and sensibility is informed by the authority of belonging. Today, however, the imagination resides along the peripheries; it is spoken through a minority discourse, with the dominant tongue reappropriated, re-commanded, and importantly reinvigorated. It is, at last, the end of the English novel and the beginning of the British one.
This is a distinction that, Rushdie aside, seems to have passed Moss by. He doesn’t refer to Seth or Ishiguro or Kureishi, all famous men, often praised. Irvine Welsh and Andrew O’Hagan are mentioned in passing, in quotes from Matt Thorne and someone unnamed at Granta, but Moss himself is strangely silent on the subject of Scottish fiction; James Kelman’s name, for example, doesn’t come up. And what about women? Jeanette Winterson, not exactly unfamous, isn’t featured; nor is Hilary Mantel; though Zadie Smith inevitably is.
Most published works of fiction are not particularly good, as has surely always been the case (and the situation must seem worse now, whenever now is, because the mediocrities of the past are soon remaindered and forgotten). But there are good novels being written, too, by writers who are not in the window-cleaning business – and if they are excluded from the ‘literary scene’, I’d like to think it doesn’t bother them unduly. As Browning put it, ‘What porridge had John Keats?’