Daytime TV: The art of the word

What makes a novelist? Irritability? Unhappiness? Gary Day wonders whether in future it will matter

August 26, 2010

Do you remember the novel? It used to be a significant literary form. That didn't mean you would actually read Ulysses, just that, if you wanted to be thought of as an educated person, you would at least have a copy on your shelf. But no one wants to be thought of as educated nowadays, not if it means having to make a judgement on works of art.

The fact that we do make such judgements while pretending that we don't is just one of the hypocrisies of intellectual life. Anyone who doubts that there is no such thing as a bad novel obviously hasn't read The Lucifer Code. Such works are useful because they drive you to seek out better ones which, like the tiger, always appear to be hovering on the verge of extinction.

Jonty Claypole's superb three-part series In Their Own Words: British Novelists (BBC Four, Monday 16, 23 and 30 August, 9pm) charts the fortunes of the novel during the 20th century. It was fiercely intelligent. Philip Hensher wondered why so few novelists had analysed the allure of Mrs Thatcher. There was also a whiff of regret that this most democratic of art forms now gets its value more from being entered for the Booker Prize than for its vision of society.

The first part, Among the Ruins (1919-1939), had footage of G.K. Chesterton and H.G. Wells, but was most remarkable for a tape of Virginia Woolf talking about the difficulties facing the modern writer, chief of which was the English language. How could one rid it of all those "echoes, memories and associations" that were a barrier to creating a new order full of "beauty and truth"? One can't, although the managerial class, bless it, does its best. Even by mentioning truth and beauty Woolf was invoking the ghost of Keats. The power of English lies partly in its reverberations.

Woolf, like Elizabeth Bowen, tried to invent the novel for a new age. Both women experimented with the stream-of-consciousness style. Others, like P.G. Wodehouse, looked back to a world that existed before the Great War. With his big specs and bald head, Wodehouse bore an uncanny resemblance to Foucault. If he hadn't been smoking a pipe, you could easily have imagined him as the author of The History of Sexuality rather than Right Ho, Jeeves. Asked why there was no sex in his stories, he said they were "too light". The gravity of human flesh was for him no laughing matter.

It didn't weigh too heavily on Evelyn Waugh, though. He was interviewed by John Freeman for Face to Face, but was not what you might call forthcoming. "Why are you appearing on the programme?" Freeman asked. "Poverty," Waugh snapped. He warmed up later. "If someone praises me, I think 'what an arse', and if they abuse me, I think 'what an arse'." He appeared again on Monitor and demanded to be interviewed by a young woman, the author Elizabeth Jane Howard as it turned out. Waugh dismissed Ulysses as "absolute rot" and between takes asked Ms Howard when she was going to remove her clothes.

Waugh said his overriding characteristic was "irritability". It was that that got him writing. For Jean Rhys it was unhappiness. Despite the central thesis of the series, that the novel is a reflection of its time, many authors did not see their work in that way. Ian McEwan (Nothing Sacred (1970-1990)) denied that there was any connection between his novel The Cement Garden and the state of British society in the 1970s. Of course there is, but only critics can see it. They exist to help writers better understand their own creations.

Only John Braine (The Age of Anxiety (1945-1969)), author of Room at the Top, spoke about literature as a "cracked mirror". His was the regional voice, which is not the same as the working-class one. The nearest we got to that was James Kelman (Nothing Sacred (1970-1990)), who claimed that the novel was a middle-class form that denied working-class characters an inner life.

No survey is ever complete, but the omission of Julian Barnes was a mystery. Room could easily have been found for him in the third programme, too much of which was devoted to Salman Rushdie. He's good, but not that good. Still, the burning of The Satanic Verses was a turning point. It came as a shock, said author and journalist Hari Kunzru, to learn that those to whom post-colonial writers were supposedly giving a voice had one of their own.

Such suspicion and even hatred of artistic exploration is increasingly rife in the culture. For once, claims that the novel is dead do not seem exaggerated. Let's hope In Their Own Words is not its obituary.

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