Today’s intelligentsia does not seem to go for new highbrow novels; and middlebrow readers with the fiction habit who sometimes have to make do with them would probably prefer something more nourishing and comforting, as well as something that takes itself less seriously. For how seriously today’s novel takes itself was what one felt after getting through a record number – 130 – for this year’s Booker Prize judging. There were some that did not of course, and they came to be recognised and greeted as a spot of relief. But no wonder there seems to be an impasse on the fiction counters today. Whoever still buys and reads ‘serious’ novels would presumably prefer to be buying something else: Booker-type shortlisted novels are not going like hot cakes, and indeed the ‘serious’ novel today often seems rather a shoddy affair.

Many are PC, even if almost unconsciously so; and it may be that in taking up a novel readers would rather get away from all that. Kingsley Amis in the past could hardly have been accused of being PC, but in his latest there are impalpable traces of it, like mist beginning to thicken round a craggy old mountain. Although far from being one of his best, You Can’t Do Both is certainly revealing.* It shows not exactly a loss of nerve but a wish not to appear outrageous; it falls back in good order on the sterling old tradition of the heart being in the right place, as in Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestley, and it moves rather close to John Wain’s posthumous novel, in his Bildungsroman series about a young man growing up in Oxford – a trifle ironical in view of Amis’s strongly-expressed disdain for Wain’s mode and temper of writing. Both novels join in a mood of mellow retrospection. Earlier Amises displayed the young or not so young man, the Stanley who suffers from Women, or the seducer of a Girl like You, in the guise of a rogue who knows he’s a rogue and stylishly shows the reader just how complacent about himself he is. A really good novelist performing this act is always a joy to watch. Elizabeth Bowen did it brilliantly, though much more ruthlessly than Amis ever did, in the character of Anna in The Death of the Heart. But that special sort of act is absent from You Can’t Do Both – an apposite title because up to now Amis always has. I enjoyed it, but it was not much favoured by the judging committee.

Seriousness goes with choice: significance of specification. Henry James knew nothing of the world of political correctness, but he did insist on the novel being taken very seriously, the significant subject duly chosen, and fleshed out. The result, in his own case, could become a dull though brilliantly intelligent novel like The Princess Casamassima. All the right materials are there, and the treatment exquisite and exemplary, but the result is lifeless. The careful look at a social situation has notably failed to collide involuntarily either with its actualities or with the real preoccupations of the writer. Something like that happened in many apparently promising Booker cases, where the author seemed to have been, or to have become, too much aware of what might theoretically be made of contemporary social situations. William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey should have been a very good novel but failed to be, because the author gave up his own involuntary and unconscious literary personality in favour of a plot that must have looked absolutely right – too right – for this day and age. Hilary Mantel had the same trouble, and with approximately the same results. In different ways two extremely talented writers: but they seemed to ignore here their own fictive instincts and – particularly in the case of Trevor – that sense of his own being gently animating a story which usually makes his reader care about what he writes. ‘Care’, that is, in the sense in which Philip Larkin in his 1977 Booker speech asked of a novel: ‘If I believed it, did I care about it?’ It was hard, in this instance, to care about what happened to Trevor’s characters, or to Mantel’s.

Colliding with unavoidable actualities was what seemed to inspire some of the best novels, notably James Kelman’s How late it was, how late, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star, Anita Brookner’s A Private View, Candia McWilliam’s Debatable Land. A heterogeneous assortment, but in each case the subject and its world had found the author, not the other way round. Kelman’s tremulously alcoholic Glaswegian hero, whose chief word is ‘fuck’, has a remarkable amount in common with the sad retired executive who slides so apparently effortlessly into the imaginative foreground of A Private View. Both are full-length characters, true studies in being. One cared at once a great deal about both of them, as about Hollinghurst’s quietly and desperately obsessive hero, or the small company on board McWilliams’s boat, the Ardent Spirit.

When James gently but none the less patronisingly dismissed Jane Austen as ‘knowing no more of her process than the brown bird that sings on the orchard bough’, he forgot or ignored the fact that a highly skilled and instinctive artist may know very little about how his task came to be chosen, but a very great deal about how it was done. The process and impulse in these examples of good fiction are mysterious, the detail and the craftsmanship are superbly on view. Everyone knows Jane Austen’s comment about working on ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory’, but rather less familiar is her continuing ‘with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour’. Little effect, but the reader’s absorption depends on that littleness, and that sort of consciousness.

‘Seriousness’ today usually works with a very broad brush to a prearranged specification: as it were, always getting in the right number of same-sex foster-parents abusing the children, or whatever the current fashion in social preoccupation happens to be. In some of the most notable Booker entries, like Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! or Iain Sinclair’s Radon Daughters, the liveliest display of agile technique and linguistic fireworks remained oddly tethered to a preconceived and implicit ideology, which inhibited any real freedom or spontaneity during the verbal labour. Seriousness, in the politically and ideologically contemporary sense, can go with any degree of fascinatingly experimental sparkle. One of the most interesting entries, although it did not quite come off, was Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love, which like many good first novels by young authors appeared to be quite unconscious of the fashionable fictional scene all around it. It was as absorbed in its own discoveries as the first novel of Raymond Radiguet, Le Diable au Corps, a novel which may indeed hover in the background of Essays in Love. It was one of the entries too interested in itself to care about seriousness.

Such confidence in being quite on its own was rare among ranks of novels which often seemed to be anxiously making sure that everything they ought to have had been got in. At the opposite extreme from Alain de Botton’s brand of private indifference was a blast of sea-fresh air from the Orkneys: George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time. Its ‘otherness’ may in some degree have seduced the judges, but they all responded to it. Here it was not so much a matter of individuality as of feeling that the author represented the culture of a community as well as having a voice of his own. To quote Larkin’s speech again: ‘no novel comes to grief more certainly than that in which the reader finds a lovable character unlovable, or reasons for misery unconvincing.’ Mackay Brown’s world does not include the production either of love or of misery in this literary sense. They are as natural in what he writes as are the elements, and he is not concerned to grip the reader’s attention with narrational artifice. Henry James would probably consider him another brown bird on the bough, or possibly a seagull, but he has all the shrewdness and sagacity of a past and its traditions behind him.

Narrative traditions even more ancient, as well as more sophisticatedly opulent, may lie in the background of two real tours de force: Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera, and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise. The charm in both – one set in Ceylon, the other in East Africa – is probably the result of an unusually vivid feel for characterisation, that of adolescents in particular, as if the first part of David Copperfield were being written today in exotic places. Paradise concludes in a fashionable aporia – its author is after all an academic – but both novels seem successfully to resist the anxieties of contemporary influence, and to behave, as it were, in a spontaneously Victorian manner.

The Booker shortlist this year appears to be languishing in the shops, perhaps because the novel market is undergoing one of its periodic and mysterious bad periods. The Roddy Doyle bestseller, winner last year, benefited from being Irish and about children. Novels now seem to be bought because they are popular, rather than becoming popular because they are talked about. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that literary theory, seeping into novel production at a popular level, could be progressively demoralising both the writer and the reader. We seem to be returning to an 18th-century situation, before novel-reading became popular, when the form functioned as a game rather than as an illusion. During the 19th century the novel became ‘real’, and began exerting a strong influence on social behaviour and theory. Its escapism was indeed an important part of its reality. Now there is no need for escapism, because game and illusion, the magical and the real, have ceased to be differentiated, and literary theory has displaced social theory in the novel’s background.

And there is a sense in which nothing in human affairs is taken more seriously than a game. Those outside it and indifferent to it may regard the whole thing as a bit portentous, but the players know the rules, which in the case of the novel today are both aesthetic and political, the two being almost synonymous. An outside majority is not interested in political correctness, or in the rules of the game; and although most novels in practice go on being produced in the same old way, the reading public may well have come to feel a loss of confidence in the genre as a whole. Certainly publishers feel unconfident, which may or may not explain their unwillingness to bring out Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, which she eventually published as a private venture, though, as John Sutherland pointed out in the LRB, not without powerful American backing and a great deal of experience of her own. The book was far from being a Cinderella.

It could, none the less, achieve the sort of popularity that another not specially well written but undeniably gripping fantasy acquired years ago, thereby initiating a popular taste for such works: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. John Sutherland also noted that Knowledge of Angels commits the sin any fabulist should avoid, and that Tolkien certainly sidestepped: displaying a meaning that is too determinate and obvious. It could be said, on the other hand, that Walsh does something better than that by openly concocting a serious intellectual discussion, on the question of belief and non-belief, within the frame of a quite graphic and gripping story. Such, at any rate, was the opinion of some of the Booker judges. My wife, who is interested herself as a novelist in the fictional play of intellectual points of view, was impressed by this aspect of Knowledge of Angels, although its story failed to grip her because she was repelled by the sex and cruelty scenes. These had an air of being obligatory – part of a conscientious contemporary specification – and the fact that the author should have found it needful to defer to this programming was the real sign of weakness in the book, as it was, it must be said, in many of the other entries. Since it can now be done, it’s got to be done, seems to be the novelist’s watchword, but Knowledge of Angels should be the last kind of work to require this kind of deference. Even in his own time Tolkien could have been sexier, but was probably wise to avoid it.

There is nothing standardised about such matters in Hollinghurst’s narrative. Wholly individual in its poise, and humorously aware of the inherent melancholy of the flesh, it reminded me strongly of James Baldwin’s early masterpiece Giovanni’s Room. In both cases the sensibility and discovery of the individual is what matters, although Hollinghurst, unlike Baldwin in 1957, can provide an implicit but ironically continuous contrast between the ‘diverse and undulant’ self-discoveries of his individuality and the impersonal needs and importunities of the flesh. There was something comic about five Booker judges discussing the book’s felicities, and its possible moments of failure, without ever really getting around to what it was all about; though we were perfectly happy and at home with the homosexual details, and the novel gave us to understand their compulsiveness. It was a reversed example of defamiliarisation in action and of the novelist’s power, in Formalist terminology, of ‘making it strange’. Not that the novel ultimately depended on this effect, because its real triumph was a sort of domesticity, in which the reader felt at home without knowing why.

I finished with a feeling of surprised respect for the Booker enterprise, and for the very English compromise it seems not unhappily to make, year after year, between kinds of novel so different from each other that judgment hardly knows where to begin, or rather with what words to justify itself. We gave the award in the end to Kelman. Alan Taylor very much wanted that: Julia Neuburger, bless her, said over my dead body. She and Alastair Niven were strong partisans of Paton Walsh. At least there were four of us who admired the winning book, although two would rather have given the prize to Hollinghurst. I was for Hollinghurst first, Kelman second. Horse-trading, like betting, seems to be a breath of life in the nostrils of literary prizes, and why not? A hundred-plus also-rans, still in their bright coats and colours, went out to grass. One felt a continuing affection for them, and a sort of sadness at parting.

Larkin’s point may be broadly true: the terrier knows the rat when he sees it: but is the rat, so to speak, inside the novel, or is he the novel itself? A.E. Housman thought that when people enjoyed poetry they usually meant they were enjoying something inside the poem: and even so mixed-up and impure a form as prose fiction can face a judge with the same problem. It’s impossible to read a novel correctly, particularly a new novel. We read badly because nobody really knows in such cases how to read well. Perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, the novel is reading us. The one that comes off best may be the ultimate voyeur.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences