British novelists in their own words. Again.

I’ve just watched the third part of the BBC4 series on British novelists that I wrote about earlier. This final episode spanned 1970 – 1990, a period when a new generation of British writers who had absorbed the example of the post-war American generation (Updike, Roth, Mailer etc), or who had grown up as post-colonial people with a linguistic link to the UK, seemed to inject a new energy, a new seriousness, and a new irreverence into the literary culture.

Again, this was broadly enjoyable stuff, interesting mainly to see the cultural reverence in which novelists were still held at this time. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, looking gawky and geeky, talked eloquently and with real authority about the nature of their work and of fiction in general, but the real core of this last programme was the experience of Salman Rushdie. From winning the Booker Prize at the beginning of the 1980s, by the end of it he was effectively on the run after having been sentenced to death by a vicious, autocratic regime for the temerity of writing a book. Hari Kunzru atomised this perfectly when he said that Rushdie found himself in the middle of two different worlds, not so much separated by faith or values, but by language – one side took language literally, the other took pleasure in its mutability.

The Scottish angle was finally covered, and I have to admit it wasn’t in the way I was expecting. With a timeline that finished in 1990, there was no space for Irvine Welsh or the usual suspects, so instead we had a really quite in-depth look at James Kelman and his uncompromising work. Kelman can be an acquired taste, and although I’m by no means an uncritical fan (or any sort of a class warrior), it was great to hear him amidst all the cut glass Oxbridge accents on display.

I bow to no one in my love of Martin Amis, but many of these writers did not live up to the energising promise they seemed to display at the time. I can’t remember when I last read something by Ian McEwan out of anything other than a sense of duty, and “Midnight’s Children” excepted, I don’t think any of Rushdie’s work is worth a candle. (Poor Julian Barnes didn’t get a look-in here.) By the end of the 1980s, I think most of them had used up whatever artistic capital they started out with, and would coast along for the next twenty years on the back of early success. Even Amis has spent the last decade disconsolately searching for a theme (although I happen to find that in itself fascinating, and eminently rewarding, to watch). The “minor” writers who featured in this episode, like Angela Carter or Kelman, are the ones who will last I think; true only to their own obsessions, their own fascinations, and not swayed in any way by the prevailing winds of culture.

Next, at some point (I haven’t finished it yet), a review of the new Will Self novel. The editor of the Scottish Review of Books emailed me earlier today asking if I had read any of Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels (published under the name Iain M. Banks), as he had a new title to review, but unfortunately I haven’t read a word of them and had to turn it down. If I get anything else to review, I’ll post about it here.

RWS

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