As the Booker shortlist proved, too many modern novels are assembled for a market
There’s a fairly widespread view that English fiction is in the doldrums. This year’s showcase for the contemporary novel, the Man Booker prize, a bellwether for our literary culture, has inspired some more than usually anguished hand-wringing. “Is that it?” and “Is this the best we can do?” have been among the dominant reactions in an almost universal expression of dismay and disbelief.
This cultural recession mirrors the economic downturn. Last month, on a visit to the US, I got a rare glimpse into the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate. Apparently, for at least one prominent literary agent, there is now only one rule, which can be expressed mathematically as 1/10, thus: “A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes.”
My thoughts went to my favourite novels. Who, by such criteria, would give Heart of Darkness or Ulysses a second glance? Monty Python’s “summarise Proust” competition was an inspired moment of surreal comedy, but apparently that’s now the reality. How, for instance, would you explain The Portrait of a Lady in a single sentence? American girl, transplanted to England, refuses English peer, falls victim to the sinister Madame Merle and marries a worthless dilettante, in a terrible compromise of frustrated emotion? Well, hardly.
Perhaps one should not get too prudish about the 1/10 formula. Henry James himself wrote in The Art of Fiction that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel… is that it be interesting”. While the criterion of 1/10 tells us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, this news is all the more perplexing because, at first glance, the marketplace appears to be in such rude good health. Never has there been more new fiction, from chick lit to manga, available to the common reader. According to Nielsen BookData, of the approximately 150,000 new books that came out in the UK last year, 78,000 were works of fiction, generating about £476m.
This is a market that promotes quantity before quality, but in a new way. Mass culture has always been banal and high culture its redemption. Not any more. The 1/10 formula helps to explain why the 2011 Booker shortlist had such an air of painting-by-numbers. With the exception of the winner, The Sense of an Ending, every one of its nominated titles could be summarised in a single sentence and would indeed have sponsored a few minutes’ dinner conversation (but not more).
For this, you can blame the literary agents, or the festivals, or harassed readers, or creative writing schools, or simply the desire to attract an audience in a cacophonous market, but the upshot is the same. It’s the Ikea novel, shaped by the logic of 1/10. Ikea novels are the kind of fiction that comes direct from the factory, with no intercession of craftsmanship or artistry en route to the consumer. They are created by often talented writers, frantic to make a career, who have acquired a boxed-up fiction kit at a suburban outlet and assembled it in their spare time on the living room floor, with a construction manual in one hand, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in the other.
The Ikea novel has all the things that fiction is supposed to have. It is competently written in a simulacrum of fine writing. It has character and situation, conflict and resolution. Somewhere you will find the “arc of the narrative”. Under its highly painted metalwork there’s probably an “inciting incident” or two. Ikea-fiction writers know all about “first-” or “third-person” and “unreliable” narrators. The latter are fashionable just now, because they can be used to explain away narrative cock-ups.
The thing that Ikea culture manufactures looks like fiction, sounds like fiction and even reads like fiction. There’s just one problem: Ikea fiction is not original, and not distinctive, with no inner vision or humanity. It comes from a kit. It’s a fake and can never be a work of art. How could it be? It was invented to please a market, and to make money. No wonder so many erstwhile novelists are turning to film and television.
The Inky Fool comes up with golden nuggets
In a sign of the times, Mark Forsyth better known as the blogger Inky Fool, who has been riffing in cyberspace on the myriad secret connections of the English language, has come down to earth with the publication of a hardback, The Etymologicon (Icon Books), shortly to be a pre-Christmas Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. Forsyth, who describes himself as a “journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter and pedant”, has trawled the OED for some very strange nuggets. The Etymologicon (the word is Milton’s) links sausages and botulism, testicles and the Bible, even Bikini Atoll and Godzilla. In 250 pages crammed with cross-references, this inky fool has given the nation’s quizzers the stocking filler of the season. How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom Pérignon and Mein Kampf.
Farewell to Stevenson’s most devoted servant
The world of Stevenson studies is idiosyncratic, obsessive and sustained by passionate amateurs, many of them living, as Stevenson himself did, on the Pacific Rim. Recently, Stevensonians lost one of their most dedicated servants, Ernest Mehew, at the age of 88. For the record, Mehew was renowned as the editor of RLS’s letters. In the absence of the full-scale biography for which the Stevenson world still waits, this volume is a canonical text and Mehew its architect. But in the margins, this man of letters was a one-time civil servant at the Ministry of Food and, later, an ad man. He played an important part in some great campaigns – “naughty but nice”, “drinka pinta milka day” and “go to work on an egg”. Stevenson, a master of brevity, would have approved.