D J Taylor

Dusting off the Crystal Ball

The 2019 King’s Lynn Fiction Festival takes place later this month in an antique town hall of great beauty abutting the River Ouse. Highlights include a plenary session, held on the Saturday morning (16 March, for anyone who happens to be in northwest Norfolk) in which the guests – the current bunch includes myself, the very wonderful Robert Edric, Monisha Rajesh and George Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair – are bidden to discuss some topic of notional interest to novel readers. How many times, I asked myself, discovering from the festival website that this year’s subject is ‘the future of the novel’, have I been asked to ponder that old chestnut?

As an undergraduate, I attended earnest conferences about it. As a twenty-something apprentice, I inspected literary magazines in which it wound itself through contents pages like knotweed across a lawn. The grand panjandrums of the day – David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Lorna Sage – were fixated on it, and you could barely throw a stone in literary London in the 1980s without hitting some pundit gearing themselves up to pronounce that the novels of the future would be written by computers, or theorists, or rapt multiculturalists, or exclusively by women.

The drawback of all these prophecies was how woefully inaccurate they turned out to be. Like the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World, their future-scaping crumbled away into dust. Quite as inaccurate, alas, were most of the forecasts that, sometime later, I started to file myself. Over the years, a glance at them reveals, I have hailed the first stirrings of a new provincialism, regretted the probable return of a new metropolitanism, warned of the threat of a bogus cosmopolitanism and, without naming names, hailed the arrival of half a dozen scintillating rockets that revealed themselves to be the dampest of squibs. It was never any good and I might as well not have bothered. The only consolation in this catalogue of failure is that everybody else’s crystal balls were as cloudy as mine. Turning to a 1978 New Review symposium, for example, I discover a young Ian McEwan maintaining that ‘the best fiction over the next ten years will be generated by the women’s movement and its peripheries’. Well, as Kingsley Amis might have said, he was wrong about that, wasn’t he? I expect a large crowd at King’s Lynn, and a lively debate, but I fear that we may not hear anything new.

As homework for the plenary session, the King’s Lynn panel has been urged to read a recent New Yorker interview with Rachel Cusk in which she suggests, among other eye-catching pronouncements, that it is no longer possible to write about ‘character’ in the traditional sense. As professional obiter dicta go, this is the equivalent of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp saying that scoring goals no longer matters and football teams will now be judged on the elegance of their play, but a small part of me sees exactly what she means, for ‘character’ is another aspect of the novel that people who worry about fiction’s future have been fretting over for decades. After all, it is the best part of a century since F R Leavis, attending the series of lectures by E M Forster eventually published as Aspects of the Novel (1927), sniffed that every schoolmistress in England would now start instructing her pupils on the alleged difference between ‘flat’ and ‘rounded’ characters.

My own introduction to the ‘character’ debate came at university, where, as coeditor of a stratospherically highbrow college magazine, I found myself puzzling over a contribution entitled ‘Reading (absent) Character’. Here in 2019 it renews itself every time the likes of Cusk or Karl Ove Knausgaard or Olivia Laing, despairing of their ability to bring a plausible alternate life to the page in a landscape built on transience and fragmentation, set about writing one of those works of ‘autofiction’ of which the weekend arts supplements are so fond. But you have a feeling that the terrible thinness of most of the people in modern novels goes back even to before Leavis. It was Graham Greene, in his essay about François Mauriac, who remarked that with the death of Henry James the religious sense was lost to the novel, and with this loss went the sense of the importance of the human act. If so many of the people in books seem like cardboard cutouts it is perhaps because we inhabit a world in which we – or some of us – no longer believe in God.

Meanwhile, all the talk about ‘international’ fiction that we used to hear so much of a few years ago seems rather muted. Until recently the smart money was on vanishing frontiers and the multiplicity of voices that were going to reinvent our imagined worlds. Much of the contemporary evidence seems to suggest that localism is making a comeback. You suspect that at least a part of the Man Group’s recent decision to stop sponsoring the Booker Prize was a result of the bad publicity that cascaded onto its corporate head after Americans were allowed in.

Perhaps the only serious prediction one can make about novel reading in the next ten years is that it will be divided along generational lines. Naturally, this kind of separation has been making itself felt for centuries: George Saintsbury, writing in the 1890s, lamented that young people were beginning to find Thackeray a little old-fashioned. The Victorian sensation novelist Rhoda Broughton (1840–1920) once complained that readers thought her ‘fast’ at the start of her career and ‘slow’ at the end, though she had been writing the same book for half a century. Here, though, the fissure has less to do with temperament or novelty than technology. One could see this in the reaction to Sally Rooney’s prize-festooned Normal People, of which The Times’s James Marriott, whose opinion I very much respect, remarked, quite seriously, that it had changed the way he looked at the world.

But then Marriott is still in sight of his twenty-seventh birthday. Most of the readers on the wrong side of fifty whose opinions I canvassed thought that Rooney was certainly a talented writer, but it was a pity she concentrated on the minor interactions of a generational group whose lives are not only governed by social media but trivialised by it as well. On the other hand, perhaps novels would be in much better shape if we stopped agonising over them and simply got down to writing them.

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