Kingsley and Martin Amis represent the successes and failures of their respective generations, but they can't match the best American fictionby Andrew Marr / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
The survival of the novel-that is, a work of fiction written to do more than while away a few hours of boredom-is rather surprising. As a developing form the novel was pretty much exhausted a lifetime ago-by, say, 1922, the year in which Ulysses was published and Kingsley Amis was born. As with figurative painting, the “modern” novel would twist and struggle to find a way forward and then more or less give up. But whereas the visual arts turned to new forms-pop images, video and installations, the stuff of Tate Modern-the novel settled back into its early-modern or classical form and kept on going. Philip Roth’s last three novels, for instance, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, are rich, high works of a completely traditional kind (silver age if not golden age); they would be completely comprehensible in terms of form, if not history, to a contemporary reader of, say, Emile Zola or Henry James. The experimental novels produced with such excitement by modernists-Celine, Wyndham Lewis, William Burroughs, the French new wave, Woolf, and so on-have gone nowhere.
Why is this? “Because they were all bloody unreadable,” would presumably be Kingsley Amis’s answer. That is not true and, in any case, the triumph of the conventional novel form is a standing refutation of the cultural pessimism that informed Kingsley Amis’s curmudgeonly opinion. More likely, it is to do with the different markets. A Damien Hirst can become successful with the patronage of a single Saatchi, but a novelist needs to find hundreds of thousands of individual patrons in order to live well.
The truth is, the novel remains the handiest tool for millions of us to use when thinking about our lives and their shape-the novels of childhood, of early sex and sentimental education, of family and divorce, the novels of bereavement, old age and loss. Film rarely does this job. It does spectacle and horror, escapism and jokes, but not life. The novel’s nearest rival is the television soap opera; it has bigger audiences but a vacant glossiness and a necessary absence of catharsis. No, the chances are that if you are averagely intelligent and educated you will think about your generation, and what is happening to it, through the eyes of serious novelists-John Updike, Ian McEwan, PD James, Alasdair Gray, Iris Murdoch-very much as the Victorians did. Because of this the novel is required to update its information; the surrounding furniture of music, sexual ritual, social atmosphere, political worry and fashion, everything from e-mails to Aids, has to be right for new readers to turn a page with a whoop and think, “yesss… that’s how it is now, for me, for us.” The great novelists of the canon are essential for an educated mind, but we need the contemporary tellers, too. And the achievements of the latter-the reports they send back to the rest of us about how we’re all getting on-shape our imaginations and choices too.