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

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.