British fiction is thriving, according to publishers. But having read countless novels as a Booker judge, Jason Cowley is disenchanted by the shallowness of Britain's literary vision. Is it a passing bad patch or a sign of long-term cultural decline?by Jason Cowley / December 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
To attend the Booker prize dinner in October was to understand why a sad twilight has settled on contemporary literary culture. This was a year of levelling mediocrity for the British novel. You might have thought otherwise, listening to publishers at Guildhall lament the exclusion of their own “great” novels from the shortlist and boast of the enduring vitality of British fiction. We should not be surprised by such nonsense; we live in a time of cultural inflation-as the frisson of notoriety surrounding the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition dismally reminds us.
Publishers, supported by a new generation of benign newspaper literary editors, are more culpable than most. Overpraising slender talent is a prerequisite of their role and their judgements are inseparable from the grime of commerce; they must sell their ceaseless flow of new books. And how they love to issue books-more than 100,000 in Britain last year. This profligacy leads to a kind of hysteria of exaggeration, damaging to both writer and reader, but especially to the writer whose work enters the world freighted with unreasonable expectation.
In 1812 Byron wrote: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” after the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were received with rapture. In 1997 publishers work so assiduously at creating an aura of pre-publication expectation that writers can achieve a kind of fame long before publishing anything at all; and critics can talk of a “new golden age” of British fiction.
Yet-in a year when the death of VS Pritchett deprived English letters of its last truly great writer-I found it dispiriting to discover, as a Booker prize judge, that if this award is indeed a mirror in which British literary culture glimpses a reflection of its own worth, then we ought to look elsewhere-to the US or India. The best novels I read this year-Underworld by Don DeLillo, Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy-were not by British writers.
What is exciting about these authors is their attempt to engage with the contemporary, and to find new ways of writing about the modern world. Roy-half Syrian Christian, half Indian-twists, distorts and mangles narrative in seeking to give a once foreign language an indigenous Indian idiom. Lee, a young Korean living in America, writes of the protean self and the immigrant’s endless quest to discover an authentic American voice, in…