Despite Nick Hornby's popularity in Britain and credibility in America, serious critical appreciation of his literature of self-doubt is still overdueby Jonathan Heawood / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Viking, £17.99)
Nick Hornby is his real name. But it is also an ideal nom de plume for a writer who wants to evoke the 1970s world of fathers, sons and train sets. Perhaps it is this accidental everyman quality that has prevented Hornby’s books from attracting serious critical attention. Selling millions of copies hasn’t helped, either.
Now that his most recent novel has been shortlisted for the Whitbread prize, Hornby is having to suffer being reassessed as a literary author. Does his acceptance into the literary culture mark the passing of lad lit, the genre which he helped to invent? Does it mean that the alleged crisis in masculinity is over? Or is it simply a recognition that A Long Way Down, Hornby’s fourth novel and his first in four years, is a significant book that merits a place on any shortlist? The answers lie somewhere back down the road along which he has led his unsuspecting readers, from lad lit to existentialism.
With his first book, Fever Pitch, Hornby invented a genre and a gender. It is now part of publishing folklore that the book’s initial print run was frantically expanded as demand went through the roof. Hornby’s publishers were slow to grasp what he had done with this odd little memoir about his obsession with Arsenal football club. But the results are to be found on bestseller lists and five-a-side pitches across Britain, wherever balding men in early middle age get together to compare notes on work and life. We all live in a version of Hornby’s Highbury—Hornbury?—now. We can’t hold him single-handedly responsible for giving birth to a generation of university-educated but emotionally impaired men, but he did give them an identity and a way of thinking about themselves that has rippled out through British culture.
Hornby himself exemplified the species in Fever Pitch, and his fictional counterparts, Rob in High Fidelity and Will and Marcus in About a Boy, were soon joined by Egg in the BBC2 series This Life, Adam on ITV’s Cold Feet and the younger male protagonists of almost any television sitcom since the mid-1990s. It is a mark of the generic hold that Hornby had on the popular imagination in the 1990s that three very different actors—Colin Firth in Fever Pitch, Hugh Grant in About a Boy and John Cusack in High Fidelity—could…