The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond

January 15, 2009

The title of Dominic Head's book is a trifle misleading. At a time when projects such as Franco Moretti's massive six-volume work are setting new benchmarks in extending our temporal and spatial understanding of the novel form, the discovery that the "beyond" in Head's title extends as far as to one particular type of novel in England and the US might strike some as parochial. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the first half of Head's book benefits from a tight focus on analysing the relationship between the contemporary cultural fields in England and the US, and the literary novel genre.

Head begins by correctly, if not particularly originally, castigating a form of academic literary criticism that practises a kind of reflexive and reductive reading "against the grain" in order to propose the inevitable complicity between the novelist and the market and, by the same token, to cover itself with ersatz radical chic. Head urges these theorists to theorise their own privileged positions within academe, and then use this insight in order to arrive at a more productive and ethical form of criticism, one "that is written neither wholly with nor against the grain, but which is more 'with' than has been customary in the era of literary theory". The benefits of this method are demonstrated convincingly by showing how "literary" novelists such as John Banville, or "provincial" ones such as Chris Paling, Graham Swift and Stephen Blanchard, can be read not as elitist reactionaries, but as writers whose sophisticated formal qualities can open up a reflective and resistant cultural space from where a dispute against the ravages of contemporary global dispensation may be initiated.

I particularly liked the readings Head offers of the peculiarly British subgenre of the "seaside novel" that is shown to preserve the rich tradition of provincial realism and which, in the hands of skilled writers, works to reinsert the questions of social relations and class in an era that has produced countless imbecilic public statements by politicians and cultural commentators alike about the end of "class society".

Head's chapter on the relationship between novel and the award culture of the Man Booker Prize also has its moments. In particular, his reading of Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, which won the Booker in 1998, and which Head shows to have incorporated a sly self-reflexive irony about its own status as a novel tailored to win the literary prize, is interesting. However, Head is less successful in his attempts to defend Booker winners such as V. S. Naipaul and J. G. Farrell against Graham Huggan's charge that they receive the seal of official approval by commodifying cultural difference and exoticising colonial history.

By Head's reading, the formal ambivalences and literary self-reflexiveness of these writers serve to illuminate the connections between the colonialism and imperialism and their contemporary incarnations. Yet, this, as he acknowledges, in a way does answer the substance of Huggan's charge - that there is a neat feedback loop between the emphasis placed by the Booker (and other literary prizes) on producing an illusion of British cultural tolerance and generosity and the novels' thematic production of exoticisation, difference and separation between the Euro-American core and their exploited peripheries.

It is in his two central chapters, based on the contemporary novelistic interventions on multiculturalism and terrorism, that Head's arguments, unfortunately, unravel. On terrorism, for example, he commendably begins with an intention to show how the contemporary novels can question the dominant representation of the events of 9/11 as being an epochal watershed. Yet the evidence he marshals from his readings of the novels (and essays) of Martin Amis, John Updike, McEwan and others seem to me to reinforce my impression of the depressing banality and shallowness of the major Anglo-American novelists to the terrorist attacks on the US.

It may be, as Head argues on behalf of Amis' novel Yellow Dog (2003), that some of them have made attempts to imagine the decadence of the West as it appears to the jihadists, and thereby achieve some understanding of the logic behind the assault. However, as Head himself shows, most of them (and Amis is especially guilty here) have overwhelmingly tended to mechanically reproduce the official Anglo-American cants of "clash of civilisations", of the "West" versus the "rest", of reason against irrationality, and of militant Islam being fuelled primarily by this or that sex drive, in their writing. It is difficult to explain away such poverty as the novel's own necessary representational limits.

Head also fares poorly when he tries to compare academic critical takes of 9/11 unfavourably with these novelists. Especially unfortunate is his attempt to scold Fredric Jameson for his "robotic" and "textualist" analysis of those events. Yet what did Jameson actually say? Merely that the dominant Anglo-American media's orchestrated hysteria about "irrational Islamism" was nauseating; that 9/11 itself was a part of an unfolding chain of historical events that were not yet complete; that "militant Islam" was funded and trained by the US security services as a part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union; and that the Islamist attack on the US was, therefore, a perfect example of dialectical reversal. It is hard to imagine any analysis that is more non-controversially historicist and materialist.

Indeed, Jameson here is supported by the CIA's own analysis of 9/11 as "blowback", and by the subsequent tragedies of the still-unfolding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Head is either being disingenuous in his allegations of dialectics being "textualist" or, I am afraid, he has succumbed to the ill of academic myopia that he set out to cure in this book.

Similar analytical blind spots dog his chapter on multiculturalism. There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate the term with the quite distinct concept of postcolonialism. Head should have at least acknowledged the myriad problems of presenting the writings of such authors as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as "postcolonial". Furthermore, he finds no problems with the fact that British writers of ethnic minority often find mainstream accolade by abandoning their oppositional position on race and class. That may be Head's own personal political preference, but surely it hardly entitles him to label all oppositional black writing as a "form of anti-racist propaganda" and therefore, by implication, devoid of any literary merit?

It is, indeed, important, as Head urges, to evaluate the relationship between cultural prestige and formal qualities of the novel form. However, had Head practised on himself the sociological analysis of academic authority that he recommends for others, he would have produced a better book.

The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond

By Dominic Head. Wiley-Blackwell. 184pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9781405170116 and 70109. Published 29 August 2008

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