The hollow men

Posted by Ken Edwards on Friday, July 30, 2010 Under: writing
"Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied" says a recent Guardian article. The piece, by Dalya Alberge, is based on an interview with Sussex University research professor, novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici.

Josipovici's remarks are focused on such multi-awarded novelists as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, whose work he charges as hollow. Describing their success as a "mystery", he says: "It's an ill-educated public being fed by the media – 'This is what great art is' – and they lap it up."

Well, this doesn't come as news to me. Many of Josipovici's aperçus - such as that Tristram Shandy is more avant-garde than most contemporary British fiction - are ones I have shared for many years. His reading of Barnes as leaving him "feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner" certainly chimes with me.

The success of Ian McEwan - sometimes cited these days as Britain's leading novelist - totally baffles me. I recall him being held up as a model for me as a young writer in the 1970s. McEwan, then labelled "most promising" British writer, had a short story published in Transatlantic Review, and a year or two later I had one in there too; then he had a story in American Review, so that was the one to aim at.

But when I actually came to read him (as a fan of Kafka and Beckett, I was taken up with the contemporary exploratory fiction of such as Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Harry Mathews, and the experimental SF of JG Ballard), I was puzzled. Despite the "shocking" subject matter of his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, I thought the conception and fabric of the writing was pedestrian. Perhaps I was missing something.

(Around this time, it was the same with Seamus Heaney. His early poetry collections had been praised to the skies, to the stratosphere, in the then "serious" national press, and I was naive enough to believe this hype; but when I got the books out of the Poetry Library it seemed to me the work was competent but dull, and for a long time I thought this must be a deficiency in my understanding.)

I have to say I abandoned McEwan soon after The Comfort of Strangers. That book was a pale shadow of the work of a much greater writer that he was accused of plagiarising, Paul Bowles. The extracts from later books published as teasers in the papers did nothing to entice me back.

Anecdotes I have heard about McEwan since have helped me out of my naivety. Single-minded concentration on a career path is the key here, rather than literary innovation. 

Rushdie seemed at first to be different. The magical realism of Midnight's Children was not original of course, having been pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but its application to the Indian experience of British colonialism was interesting. However, it was slightly mannered writing, and the mannerism seemed to get more irritating with each book.

Martin Amis was another, like McEwan, who started off with "bad boy" subject matter. An early novel was titled Dead Babies (bowdlerised for the Penguin paperback as Dark Secrets). His early work seemed to have more energy than McEwan's: linguistic fizz, satire, humour. (Allegedly, McEwan's latest novel, Solar, is "comic" - I imagine him being told by his agent, or by focus group researchers at his publisher that his work was perceived as a little solemn, and he needed to put in more jokes.)

But the hollowness at the core of Amis' writing became more apparent, and the postmodern trickery, such as introducing himself as a persona in his own novel, began to seem more like wearying tropes than radical questioning of the modes of fiction.

Over the years, all of this fiction has subsided into a low-energy state of middlebrow product, over-marketed and over-praised, as Josipovici justly points out.

Enough of this already: where is the innovative British fiction of today? The most glaring absence, actually, seemed to me a few years ago to be that of publishers willing to take a risk on imaginative forms of fiction. Even in the USA, beyond Dalkey Archive and Fiction Collective 2, there appears to have been a reduction of publishing space, as Douglas Messerli, among others, has noted. In the UK, "innovative" seems to be a vogue word brandished emptily by publishers who do not come up with the goods.

started the Reality Street Narrative Series in an attempt to remedy this lack, in whatever small way. In the last year or so, since it's been actively promoted, I've been getting maybe three or four proposals weekly, of which only a minority are anywhere near my imaginary ballpark. What's alarming is that hardly any of these have emanated from this country.

Yes, there have been some hits to join the books by David Miller, John Hall and myself that Reality Street has published. Paul Griffiths' wonderful Oulipian novel let me tell you is one. In the pipeline is Richard Makin's massive non-narrative novel Dwelling, and Johan de Wit's delightfully crazy Gero Nimo. But the other new narrative titles coming up, by John Gilmore and Leopold Haas, originate from outside the British Isles. And so do most of the near-misses.

Let me tell you what I've found: there is no British avant-garde fiction scene out there begging to be liberated by an enlightened publisher. We may have to create it from scratch!

In : writing 

Tags: "contemporary british fiction" "gabriel josipovici" "salman rushdie" "martin amis""ian mcewan" "julian barnes" 
blog comments powered by Disqus

About ...

Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at