The Good of the Novel

The editors of this volume have done an unsatisfactory job - in establishing the parameters for the commissioned essays, in selecting the contributors, and in writing their introduction to the book, which has a great deal of preparatory and justificatory work to do but fails to do it. The essays gathered here, 13 in of them all, are concerned with "the contemporary anglophone novel", but only in the negative sense that the contributors, invited to write roughly 6,000 words on a novel published in the past 30 years, were prohibited from writing about novels written in languages other than English. The result is unflattering to the contemporary anglophone novel, which seems to have produced nothing more experimental than Ian McEwan's Atonement; and it does not reflect much better on contemporary anglophone "criticism", said to have been "reinvigorated" by the demise of theory, but which emerges here, for the most part, as unvigorous, unadventurous and not really critical.

Of the ten male contributors, only one (Amit Chaudhuri) has chosen as his subject a novel written by a woman (Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things). The book doesn't aim to be comprehensive, but surely it doesn't aim to be negligent or lopsided, either, and there is nothing on Marilynne Robinson or Anne Tyler or Angela Carter, but an essay each on McEwan, Amis, Roth, Coetzee, DeLillo, Auster - not all of them written by "the most strenuous and perceptive critics of the present moment", as we are told. The omission of someone who answers to that description, Adam Mars-Jones (a Faber author), points up the absence, too, of the kind of forensic disparagement in which Mars-Jones specialises.
Ray Ryan and Liam McIlvanney say that the project was motivated partly by the sense that "the novelness of novels" is returning into view - and along with it, "a criticism that approaches novels as novels". Instead of explaining why, for example, non-academic criticism, which was hardly affected by literary theory, is thriving in the age of post-theory, the editors quote or paraphrase (among many others) W H Auden, Robert Burns, Milan Kundera, "the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray" and Saul Bellow - all within the space of seven overassertive, underargued pages. One of the many novelists mentioned on the hoof is Zadie Smith, inevitably identified as the author of White Teeth rather than, more pertinently, of a lecture, "E M Forster's Ethical Style: Love, Failure and the Good in Fiction", which not only talks about "the novel as novel" but also examines the relationship between aesthetic approval and moral improvement: the Good represented by good novels.

On their way, the editors ask a series of narrow, essentialist-type questions that suggest a cohesive project: "What is it about the language used in a novel that creates a world different from that of poetry and drama? What distinguishes fictional prose from journalism, biography, or non-fictional prose? . . . How good are these novels? What kind of good are they?" Either this litany was written after the essays were delivered, in which case it provides a skewed portrait of them, or it was written beforehand and the contributors paid it little mind. In reality, the book is a hotchpotch.

Frances Wilson considers Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy in terms of its reception, as a popular author's "unpopular" book; Ian Sansom offers a gonzo exercise about teaching American Pastoral to undergraduates; Jason Cowley, editor of this paper, has written a breathless rumination on, or rummage around, the career of Martin Amis, but he has done well to choose a novel (The Information) which, due to its dramatised and mouthpieced concern with the writer's anxieties, and due to the dramas that accom­panied its publication, facilitates discussion of such subjects as talent, ambition, reputation and the afterlife of novels.

The species of critical writing most prominently on show is the review-essay, the conventional purpose of which is to adjudicate in the process of explaining. But the books under discussion here have already been read and admired, so adjudication is replaced (at least notionally) by thoughts on a particular novel's "novelness". Tessa Hadley, writing about J M Coetzee's Disgrace, fails to offer such thoughts and produces a numblingly relentless essay - which James Wood avoids doing, partly because his prose has more spring and partly because his chosen novel, Atonement, is more varied in plot and point of view, but mainly because he shifts between invasive close-up and a contextualising wide shot, asking, among other things: "Why should we believe that fiction can disinterestedly comment on its own distortions?" Wood favours such spaciousness even when not specifically demanded to supply it - in the final line of his magazine review of Disgrace, he invoked the "very nature of novelistic narrative, which inherently tends towards the dramatic corrugation, rather than the thematic flattening, of ideas".

This is the kind of thinking missing from Hadley's perceptive piece. Similarly, Robert Macfarlane (on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty) offers intelligent admiration, but nothing more exploratory, or exciting.

Benjamin Markovits, in his piece on Colm Tóibín's The Master, does pause to consider - or define - "the novelist's task" and "the job of the novel", but his critical thinking is higgledy-piggledy and his rhetoric way off. Instead of portraying Tóibín's "simplicity" on its own terms, he identifies a blanket policy of rejection: he "has never taken seriously Nabokov's advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word"; "elegant variation, metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities" are "tricks that Tóibín forswears". I do not wish to strike below the belt, but as an account of plain style this is reminiscent of Martin Amis ("Much modern prose is praised for . . . its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue").

At the other end of the scale, Michael Wood's piece serves as a reproach to the others in three ways - it is energetically written, broad in its thinking and concerned with a little-known novel. Briarpatch, by the crime writer Ross Thomas, was given 27 words in the Guardian thriller column, which described it as an "American can-of-worms novel". Wood shows that Thomas portrays detection as a way of reading the material world, and if he risks going a little far, so what? He is a true critic, and always entertaining.

As I read this collection, what I longed for was not thoughts on "what is distinctive and indigenous to the novel form", but the wit and suavity of a critic such as the Anglo-American Wilfrid Sheed, author of the novels The Critic and The Hack, as well as various collections. Sheed, who died in January, was able to make a newspaper column into an occasion for spry reflection, though he was right to define criticism as "what every reviewer would like to write if he had the time". The contributors to this volume have been given the space in which to write a piece of criticism; but most of them have rejected the opportunity, or have proved incapable of exploiting it. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

The Good of the Novel
Edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm