Thursday, September 25, 2008

The End of the English Novel


The novel has always smacked of inadequacies. It is regularly less than what is expected of it. Or worse, it is more. But rarely the thing we had in mind, never quite settling upon an identity that it is easy to be happy about. Fifty years ago Ortega y Gasset confidently pronounced it dying. Twenty years ago, Marshall McLuhan tried hard to demonstrate that it was already dead. It wasn’t, and, for some reason, still isn’t, still very much available as an attractive even if expensive instance of Randall Jarrell’s weak apology for it: ‘A longish piece of prose with something wrong with it.’

Since the war, the British novel has developed its own indigenous difficulties, or, at least, its own vernacular of complaint. When Gore Vidal remarked at the recent Edinburgh Festival that there are only ‘middle class novels for middle class readers with middle class problems’ he was echoing a tired charge that has become as predictable as much of the writing occasioning it. For John Sutherland, the complaint was raised to its most explicit by the best sellers list five years ago, dominated with eerie appropriateness by the publication of Jane Austen’s Sandition, inviting the observation that the books that are published and purchased still belong very much to that novel of sense and sensibility which has merely been written and re-written for nearly two centuries. Bernard Bergonzi’s dark phrase is, in this context, ominously emblematic: the novel is no longer novel.

This vocabulary of termination has suddenly acquired a significance which has authoritatively dropped it from the theoretical to the base, real court of the marketplace. The Current Crisis in Publishing is, we understand from the many articles it has generated, of unprecedented proportions, and is noisy with terrible doomsday pronouncements. But it is not, in the end, the book as object which is threatened – for more are appearing (if briefly) than ever before, although their number and kind have enlarged the image of publishing to something uncomfortably akin to the fast food industry – but the book as fiction, as an instance of literature: not the things in the window or on the railway platform, but the stuff apparently too cumbersome to consume on the run.

The implications of the present Crisis are obvious. It’s not simply that a literature exists which many find disappointing. It’s that we are being told, from now on, it can be no other way. There are reasons for it — the rising costs of this or that, the ‘pound’, inflation, foreign markets — and the reasons are real in a simple pocketbook way. Faced with many English novels, I confess I’d rather watch television. Faced recently by their price, I see I have no choice.

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