Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Novel Idea

So sixty years of British fiction has been run through Te Graun's computer and discovered to be 'surpassed' by Johny Yank? There's a surprise.

'Any honest fan of modern fiction has to acknowledge the supremacy* of American writers since the 1960s. For this particular British reader, to discover the novels of Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon, in particular, was to be released from the tongue-tied mumblings of postwar English fiction into a new world of generous imaginative reach and exuberant language'

This statement is actually quite interesting. Very, very stupid of course, but interesting in its own sense. Could the 'post-war English fiction' be despised precisely because it spoke about a time when our country had values that most modern middle class Brits really despise? Is A Clockwork Orange 'tongue-tied mumbling'? Or High Rise? Somewhere East of Life? Riddley Walker? The Serpent? Murdo Stories? After the Funeral? Lanark? Trainspotting? The Bull From the Sea? Nothing Like the Sun?

These are just some names that came off the top of my head, but one thing came to my mind. These are all either generic or Scottish. I find this interesting in a sense, because this demonstrates that for neo-Liberal Uncle Tom Brits, American pop-culture is valuable because it gives a certain zing to their petit bourgeois metropolitan blinkeredness. It gives a break from the dullness of East Anglian RP speech, without being associated with one of those poor, Labour voting regions. It offers middle brow narratives about mediocre things happening to middle class people without any of this sci-fi/history/detective nonsense. And sure enough:

'...Surely, if the novel in English has a master now at the peak of his powers, it is Ian McEwan.'

This is a good chuckle: precisely because McEwan is undoubtedly as middle class, East Anglian and safe as Brit writers come (which would be fine, if Jones didn't make a point of admiring the ballsiness of American fiction). I seem to remember Te Graun published the first chapter of Saturday, which was one of the most embarrassingly silly things I've read. Whilst overall, Te Graun was fairly good on the Iraq war, I think McEwan's reflections on the subject were amongst the dumbest 'these people probably don't know that Saddam was a nasty chappie' sort. Of course, one of the strengths of a novel is that it can give insight into how people may think without expressing themselves. In this note, it would be interesting if a fictional sympathiser of the war were to consider the none-too utilitarian, PC or neo-liberal question of whether being America's poodle would damage British self-esteem.

I don't think that the author thought about this either. Which is why he is still Te Graun's posterboy.

*Note, not 'superiority', which would be the word if continuing the British comparison but 'supremacy over all the nations of the world.


  1. Absolutely agree with you on all this, Gregor. Alasdair Gray and Patrick Kelman are great, plus Muriel Spark of course: 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' is sublime.

    That we don't acknowledge JG Ballard is absurd. The better stuff is often generic or blurring the boundaries as he does, plus crime writers, e.g. Reg Hill, or place writers - Alan Garner.

    It is actually very indicative of the Guardian overall - and the Miliband-style Labour Party - that they think only in terms of American history / literature. I know some Guardian readers are much more interesting than this in their tastes, but it is fair characterisation of many...

  2. @Tom

    If you liked JG Ballard, you might also like Brian Aldiss.

    My list had a couple of books by Anthony Burgess who thought that his Irish-Mancunian roots led to his being neglected by the critical establishment.

    I'm not sure what to make of that, or Burgess in general. I think his early books were his most interesting, and the rot set in with Tremor of Intent. In this book, Burgess thought he was patronising to write a high-brow spy story. But it highlighted that many skills that are needed to write popular fiction aren't that easy. for instance Fleming, for all his faults gave Bond some good one-liners 'for me it's just the right size', whilst Burgess writes dialogue that makes George Lucas look like a master of realism 'Deutschland, Deutschland unter alles'.

    Still, I do wonder if there might have been some truth in what Burgess said. Do you think that literature of Northern England has been neglected to an extent?

  3. I think McEwan's work - and his view of the Iraq war - has to be seen in the context of his childhood; he's of *that* generation who feel a romantic debt to the US for "bailing them out" culturally, what I call "Luxy-under-the-bedclothes" aesthetics and politics. 'On Chesil Beach' gave that away and worked well on its own terms.

    The problem comes when people try to apply that principle *now*, as if 2010 was 1962 and American pop culture *wasn't* the elite, establishment culture as defined by The Times. I would suggest that Jonathan Jones is of that generation: Rusbridger's Guardian is stuffed full of people steeped in a now outmoded set of cultural responses every bit as much as, say, the Times was in 1962, and its greatest problem is that, if faced with a choice between me, or you, or Tom, or someone like us, and someone our age who has fallen for the Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacist myth and thinks it's somehow "exciting" or "anti-establishment", Rusbridger's minions will always choose the latter, because the former would actively challenge their assumptions, and they're as afraid of that as any other paper.

  4. @Robin
    On that note, did you have the misfortune to read Julie Burchill's latest? The irony is that she attacks Frankie Boyle for playing to the crowd with an anti-Zionist joke, whilst her own self-aggrandising 'support' for Israel is a really embarrassing attempt to be outre (as was her support for the Iraq war).