Why are we obsessed with the state-of-the-nation novel?

The authors taking Britain's pulse.

Martin Amis
Visions of England: Martin Amis (Photograph: Getty Images)

In a perceptive article published in the Observer earlier this year, the writer Alex Preston examined a fine quartet of recent British “state-of-the-nation” novels and noticed how many of their themes and techniques could be traced back to the same fountainhead: Anthony Trollope and his magisterial work of 1875, The Way We Live Now. Among the shared components, according to Preston, were “shifting viewpoints, keen engagement with contemporary themes and use of London as a microcosm”, resulting in “a sprawling tour de force with a huge cast of characters and a labyrinthine plot”. Another common feature, he might have added, is the presence of a morally empty banker (or, nowadays, hedge-fund manager), a distant relative of Trollope’s villain Augustus Melmotte.

It shocks me to realise that it’s almost 20 years since I bounded confidently up to the microphone with my own foray into this genre, a novel called What a Carve Up!. It was written as a response to the seismic changes in British political culture during the 1980s and, just in case nobody spotted what I was up to, I even had a fictional reviewer insert a little manifesto into the text: “We stand badly in need of novels,” he pontificated, “which show an understanding of the ideological hijack which has taken place so recently in this country, which can see its consequences in human terms and show that the appropriate response lies not merely in sorrow and anger but in mad, incredulous laughter.”

At this distance, I find it hard to judge just how faithfully this comment reflected my personal views or whether it was a slippery parody of them. I mean, is there ever a time when we stand “badly in need” of any particular kind of novel? An interviewer recently told me – I’m not sure on what authority – that readers were waiting for me to produce a What a Carve Up! for the Cameron era. I responded with something to the effect that it’s boring to write the same novel twice; but on reflection, I realised that what he had said raised a fundamental question: this country has a particular fondness and predilection for state-of-the-nation writing but what is it that we want it to achieve? If we find ourselves living through an era in which everything – economically, socially, culturally – seems to be going wrong, why do we think that reading a novel about it is going to help?

It’s worth pointing out that this interviewer was French, which does alter the context. Nobody likes novelists to live in an ivory tower and one of the more engaging contradictions of France is that, although writers’ political opinions are more frequently sought and highly valued there than in the UK, the indigenous novel is often derided (by its own readers) for being way too introspective and self-obsessed. France had its Balzac and its Hugo but it doesn’t seem to have their 21st-century equivalents. (The nearest, perhaps, is Michel Houellebecq.)

Here, on the other hand, at least from the perspective of the European journalists I’ve met, the modern novel seems to be enviably focused on contemporary political and social issues. Until recently, one of the commonest complaints against British writing was its fixation on the past. Writing 11 years ago about
the 2001 Booker Prize, Tim Adams lamented that “out of the 22 books on this year’s longlist only three were set in contemporary Britain”. His conclusion was that: “We like our novels to tell us . . . not about where we are, but about where we used to be.”

It feels to me that something has changed since then, however. Nowadays it only takes a moment’s thought to reel off a list of British writers whose recent work is not just set in modern Britain but is thoroughly engaged with it: Rose Tremain, Amanda Craig, Will Self, Marina Lewycka, Nicola Barker. Martin Amis’s latest is even subtitled "State of England". And it’s a novelist, John Lanchester, who has probably done more than anyone in this country to explain the complex iniquities of the modern financial world to the general reader.

The writers I’ve just named are all very diverse, which should remind us that state-of-the-nation writing can come in many different forms. It would be a mistake, I think, to privilege the neo-Trollopean variety over any other. As B S Johnson wrote as long ago as 1973: “Present-day reality is changing rapidly; it always has done, but for each generation it appears to be speeding up. Novelists must evolve (by inventing, borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their own reality and not Dickens’s reality or Hardy’s reality or even James Joyce’s reality.” For Johnson, the 19th-century panoramic social novel “cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing of it is anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant, and perverse”. Preston would seem to disagree: “The state-of-the-nation novel is necessarily traditional,” he wrote. “Avant-garde difficulty would jar with its democratic aim of giving voice to a broad mix of characters.”

Between Johnson’s and Preston’s positions, articulated almost 40 years apart, there seem to me to be worlds of continuing possibility. All storytelling is political, being an attempt to control and influence the imaginative life of another person for a period of time. If there is a problem with the 19th-century model, it’s not so much that it is invalid or irrelevant but that, paradoxically, it is too formally satisfying to suit our current state of mind. It induces the stolid consolations of closure and catharsis and I’m beginning to think that these are not what our present difficulties require. You could argue that traditional fiction, like political satire – something else at which the British excel – merely offers an escape valve for moral energies that might otherwise seek another outlet; that might, perhaps, translate into something more dynamic than the passive contemplation of a political reality reflected back at the reader, however truthfully.

And why, in any case, should the alternative to neo-Victorianism be “avant-garde difficulty”? Consider one of the most impressive state-of-the-nation novels of the past 40 years. The nation in question is Scotland and the book is Lanark by Alasdair Gray. Yes, it’s a highly literary as well as politically engaged work but its reference point is not the 19th-century English novel. Its dystopian vision of a blackened, diseased metropolis comes from sci-fi and fantasy fiction. Its narrative self-referentiality, inviting engagement and participation from the reader, comes from the work of the likes of Sterne and Flann O’Brien. And the narrative,  although its scale and complexity offer deep rewards, does not resolve: it does not give its readers the comfort of closure.

If state-of-the-nation writing has any part to play in the midst of our present deep, man-made economic and human crisis, I would look for inspiration to a novel such as Lanark: one that might fail to satisfy us with a literal reproduction of today’s reality but which purposely stokes, instead, a nagging dissatisfaction that could even make us want to change it.

Jonathan Coe’s most recent novel is “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” (Penguin, £8.99)