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the temperature in there was akin to some damp sub-tropical clime, but mostly because the discussion felt distinctly out of date.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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis