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the temperature in there was akin to some damp sub-tropical clime, but mostly because the discussion felt distinctly out of date.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.