Why the novel isn't always good

The ubiquity of a select-few male novelists reminds us that the British literary scene needs a good

Laughter rose from the audience in the packed LRB bookshop on Monday night when the writer Amit Chaudhuri announced he'd agreed to write an essay for Faber's The Good of the Novel, a new collection of essays about "What makes a novel a novel", because he'd misheard one of the editors, Ray Ryan -- he thought he wanted him to write an essay about what is wrong with the novel form.

This appeared to be news to Ryan who was chairing the panel of four -- Chaudhuri, the critics Frances Wilson and James Wood (whose essays also feature in the book) and the Faber editor Lee Brackstone.

The book was previously subject to a scathing review in these pages by Leo Robson who argued that while the book's introduction promised texts that would rigorously investigate the anglophone novel and the import of criticism post-theory, in fact the criticism was "unvigorous, unadventurous and not really critical"; presenting instead "review-essays" mostly of endlessly discussed books by endlessly discussed male authors like Roth, Amis, DeLillo, McEwan and Auster.

Robson is absolutely spot on about the book's failure to achieve its stated remit, but that doesn't stop the majority of the "review-essays" on offer being well worth reading, notably: Robert MacFarlane on The Line of Beauty, James Wood on Atonement, and Andrew O'Hagan on DeLillo.

The event at the LRB was, however, less entertaining, largely because the temperature in there was akin to some damp sub-tropical clime, but mostly because the discussion felt distinctly out of date.

Wood explained that reading had been freedom from his traditional and strict upbringing; that the "largely comic" form of the novel was a revelation in its ability to say and do anything. Wilson considered the controversy caused by the blurring of fiction and memoir via Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy. While Chaudhuri explained that as a writer he is drawn to the parts of a novel often discussed pejoratively, like background, description, setting - the spaces and gaps in between. He also touched on the idea of globalisation's impact on the literary, and how the novel has thrived amid the modern-day rhetoric of plenty.

But strangely for a project so concerned with the relevance of the novel, hardly anyone mentioned its present or its future. The essays themselves discuss novels published between 1984-2007, with the large majority in the 20th century, a fact that had left me untroubled on reading, but during the discussion struck me as strange. Here we were talking about books we knew, ideas we were familiar with... and for what?

By chance, I happened to be clutching a copy of Oliver Twist in my greasy mitts and its presence seemed a silent rebuke on proceedings; the immediacy and urgency of Dickens's prose, its total immersion in what was happening in the now, it's restless radical desire to tell us something.

I wondered if anyone would ask, is now a good time for the novel, particularly the debut novel? And if not, why not? Interestingly, it was only Lee Brackstone who began to consider this. He likened the term "literary" to "indie" (in relation to music) -- that is, a once precise term that now refers to a larger commercial mass -- and wondered aloud if the system, the pattern of publishing was really working. He asked are the right novels getting through, are we getting the novels we should?

Certainly the hothouse atmosphere made one want to stand up and shout "No! We are not!" just to stretch the legs. But Brackstone's point was important, suggesting as he was that publishing in the UK is conservative with a small "c", a world where Tom McCarthy is branded dangerously experimental, and Jennifer Egan too risky to make the Orange shortlist.

The Good of the Novel sheds an intelligent warming light on some key novels from the past 30 years, and it is comfortable and enjoyable and enlightening. But as I slipped back through the cool relief of the Bloomsbury streets towards Clerkenwell (as if I could well be making my way to some Saffron Hill den), I wondered, how can it be relevant to keep returning to Amis, McEwan, et al? Despite the huge numbers of novels published every year in England it feels as if we're stuck in the past. And if this book reminds us of anything, it's that the literary scene in the UK needs a good hard shake.

A C Goodall is a London-based writer, bookseller and editor.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses