We have been warned regularly, for almost a century now, that the death of the novel is nigh. This dire prediction has always been confounded: like a charred and dusty phoenix the novel has risen again and again.
But now, for the first time, something seems different. I can find almost no new UK fiction that I wish to read. The almost unbearable excitement of entering a bookshop has gone, as has the joy of leafing through publishers' catalogues and wondering how I can possibly wait months until certain proofs are available. In common with other serial readers I know, I have been driven to re-reading old favourites and catching up on classics.
There may be personal reasons for this fretfulness. Perhaps after a lifetime of non-stop reading I am just burnt out. Or it could be that long-term reviewing of fiction - which has an insidiously destructive effect on one's relation to text - has taken its toll. It may be that writing more means reading less and missing good novels. I am not, however, altogether convinced by any of these rationalisations. In the past, somehow, whether by intuition, recommendation or constant experimentation, I always managed to find novels that could be treasured.
I am not suggesting that there is no one at all in Britain who is currently writing readable fiction. There are several writers producing perfectly sound work. There are under-rated writers, such as Frank Kuppner and Brigid Penney. There is the brilliant Alan Warner, the admirable Iain Sinclair and the very inventive Will Self. There is Stewart Home, whose whole life seems to be becoming a conceptual artefact, and the rather different, but equally quaint, Martin Millar. The writers who give me most pleasure are probably those who produce impeccable short stories - Shena Mackay, Jane Gardam, Claire Boylan and Georgina Hammick. There is Robert Irwin. Terry Pratchett is a notable humorist. We are hardly bereft of creativity. And yet . . . with the occasional exception, often by one of the writers cited above, there is very little that, well, seizes the soul. The last truly great writer, Samuel Beckett, doesn't really count, because of his nationality. Some of Graham Greene provides enduring joy, but there is no point in looking back if we are to diagnose the current problem. The bookshops are full of candy-coloured fluorescent fiction that I do not want to read. Nor is my complaint a solitary one.
The symptom is clear enough. Most of what passes for literary fiction in Britain is just not very good. It is far less easy to disentangle the reasons for this state of affairs, as they are long- standing and culturally complex.
The hegemony of American fiction over the past 50 years has done nothing for our self-esteem. The British renaissance that critics struggled to keep afloat in the 1950s was ultimately proved to have sheltered only two good writers: Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. More recently the growth of critical theory has distanced some readers who wish to attain an understanding of literature. And people do not read enough good books - real books, old books, classics. Such reading, plus the acquisition of grammar, rhythm and vocabulary that accompanies it, is essential for a writer. People probably do not have the time to read novels now - recreational reading used to be the pastime of a leisured middle class that no longer exists.
Our culture is increasingly a visual one that tends to adopt the standards of the cinema. Thus publishers have started behaving as conservatively as studios, gravitating towards manuscripts that can be likened to a previous, successful work. The fiscal bottom line dominates in publishing, and editors have less time to read new and obscure work.
Critical standards, too, are extremely low. It may have been understood that The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County were not serious books, but Cold Mountain, which was barely any improvement, was greeted ecstatically. They are all bad books. Not good bad books, like Gone With the Wind or Valley of the Dolls, just bad.
It seems that there is a deep need for fiction as reassurance, fiction that mirrors the heart- warming values of cinema, fiction that is neither imaginative nor challenging. Sentimental books are in demand - witness the success of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Perhaps this is understandable in a highly stressed, uncertain world (not that it's ever been otherwise) - but it does nothing for literature.
There is a positive embracing of mediocrity, which can result in quite ludicrous hyperbole. Neither of the recent novels by Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie is particularly commendable, but one would think, in all the fuss, that Homer was giving a reading in Books Etc. There is a terrible paucity of passion and imagination in fiction. The spate of confessional, autobiographical semi-fiction has discouraged an appreciation of the powers of imagination in both writers and readers. This cult of disclosure is one indication of the ways in which our lives are less interior than they used to be, less eccentric, less imagined. We live in a crowded world - perhaps it is inevitable that homogeneity of vision prevails. Perhaps the need for poetry and mystery is shrinking. After all, whatever one feels about religion, one needs only to look at what has been done to the King James Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer to see a platitudinous democracy of the imagination in action.
God help us if, in the future, all our language is similarly reduced to the level of a maintenance manual.