Commentary - The end of the make-believe

Jason Cowley on V S Naipaul's death knell for the novel

V S Naipaul, writing in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, has again questioned whether the novel has a future. He does not mean the novel qua novel, but as it is practised by most professional writers of fiction as a pre-formed mould of plot, character and event, not an organic form, into which the author empties his cheap slurry of chapters and words. In his essay, Naipaul approvingly quotes Conrad's observation, on receiving the manuscript of a friend's novel, that "all the charm, all the truth are thrown away by the . . . mechanism (so to speak) of the story which makes it appear false". So the engine of the fiction was plot, too much of it.

Naipaul has long believed that the most important works of fiction were written in the 19th century, between 1850 and 1895; he continues to dislike the word "novel", and is baffled as to the importance of reading invented stories. "I don't see reading as an act of drugging oneself with a narrative. I don't need that," he has said. "There was a time when fiction provided discoveries about the nature of society, about states, which gave those works of fiction a validity over and above the narrative element." He believes that all forms have to be rethought. "Before the novel in Europe there was the essay, the narrative poem, theatre, the epic poem - all considered the principal forms at various times. There is no longer any need to consider the novel the principal form."

Anyone attempting to write a novel, as I have over recent months, almost to the exclusion of anything else, ought to know well the feeling of enervation that comes from working in borrowed forms, from the failure to liberate yourself from pre-existing structures; at times you can almost hear the mechanical clunk and grind of your imagination as you move the action forward, ponderously laying clues and directing your characters from one scene to the next, like an over-excited theatre producer shouting orders through a loudhailer.

Kingsley Amis used to complain that his son Martin's novels contained too few sentences such as "He finished his drink and left"; he waggishly suggested, too, that he lost interest in a novel unless it began, "A shot rang out." There is nothing wrong in Kingsley Amis's comic demand for familiarity; he sought in fiction what many of us fail to find in life: order, form, artificial shape, resolution, omniscience. For him fiction was not, as it has been for Naipaul, an act of moral inquiry, a mechanism by which to discover the honest truths about individual lives and societies; but an entertainment, a diversion, a jolly game.

Martin Amis (mentioned because of his primacy in our literary culture), ever the rebellious son, positioned himself against the soft realism of his father, enrolling himself from an early stage into the "high style" school of fiction, where, to borrow the Conradian dictum, any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line. As a writer of scope and ambition, Amis fils is locked in a restless quest for novelty. He has made it clear that he wants to invent his own idiom, to be first with a new way of writing about modern life. But his is a verbal, not a formal, novelty; there is nothing of what Naipaul would call "news" in his work, nothing existentially alarming, nothing that makes you feel that something is being written about for the first time in fresh and unexpected ways, as perhaps the readers of Gogol or Dickens once felt - or indeed the Indian readers of Midnight's Children must have felt when Rushdie imported the magic realist novel, popularised by the Latin Americans, to Indian subjects.

Reading Martin Amis's fiction, you are struck instead by the narrowness of his preoccupations and by how often he recycles the same themes, as if his subject were not the whole world but only a tiny part of it. As a result, his considerable linguistic daring cannot compensate for his having no subject, for his insistence on rendering people and the world entirely in caricature.

In his NYRB essay, Naipaul describes how as a young writer he quickly realised that fiction - the make-believe - could only carry him so far; that, as he puts it, "there were certain things it couldn't deal with". So in his early thirties, not five years into the writing life, years which had already seen him produce the great A House for Mr Biswas, he felt written out, unable to go on. Travel and an unsparing psychological realism eventually offered him a route out of the maze into which he had stumbled so unwillingly. And so began the long, anguished career, the painful search for new forms - intermingling autobiography, social inquiry, reportage, documentary - with which to render the shifting complexities of the "half-formed" countries of the decolonised world, a subject and task he was to make fearlessly, unremittingly his own.

Much that is bad and dishonourable has been written about V S Naipaul in recent months, by writers and journalists who have swooped vulture-like on the rotting carcass of Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow (the first suicide note ever to be issued in glossy hard covers), as if it offered definitive testament to the coldness at the heart of Naipaul's singular visions. That Naipaul has remained hitherto silent on the subject and now published an essay in the NYRB of such moral seriousness speaks well of the man. Long may he roam.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again