In our summer fiction supplement, DJ Taylor argues that angry voices of discontent rarely make it into the mainstream, while in a short story Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen follows an African-American ex-soldier who is grappling with demonsby Sameer Rahim / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Not long ago, I got chatting to a friend who teaches English literature in the United States. We were trying to work out if there were any living American authors who have never been involved with a creative writing school—either as student or teacher. We came up with Tom Wolfe. (Any others let me know.) We’re not at that level of saturation here, but we’re not far off. And this is by no means a bad thing. Artists go to art school and musicians to music college: writing is a craft that can be taught.
But while the quality of novel-writing might have increased due to these courses, their cost means they inevitably exclude the more marginalised. As the critic DJ Taylor argues in his essay “Look back on anger,” the “disabling effects of this institutionalising” has meant that other, angrier, voices of discontent rarely break into the mainstream. In the wake of disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington, which laid bare the stark inequality in our country, this is all the more concerning.
Leaving aside the middle-class writer conjuring the working-class grotesque (see Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo), you can usually count the number of novels about working-class people published each year on two hands. The last one to win the Booker was Scottish author James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, in 1994—and even that was controversial because of its profanity. More recently, you could point to two novels about football culture, Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns and Ross Raisin’s A Natural. But not much else.
This is strange since many of our greatest writers have been interested in the lives of the underprivileged: Dickens, of course, but also George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, whose portrayals of the rural poor are more acute than they are often give…