Why the novel isn't always good

The ubiquity of a select-few male novelists reminds us that the British literary scene needs a good

Laughter rose from the audience in the packed LRB bookshop on Monday night when the writer Amit Chaudhuri announced he'd agreed to write an essay for Faber's The Good of the Novel, a new collection of essays about "What makes a novel a novel", because he'd misheard one of the editors, Ray Ryan -- he thought he wanted him to write an essay about what is wrong with the novel form.

This appeared to be news to Ryan who was chairing the panel of four -- Chaudhuri, the critics Frances Wilson and James Wood (whose essays also feature in the book) and the Faber editor Lee Brackstone.

The book was previously subject to a scathing review in these pages by Leo Robson who argued that while the book's introduction promised texts that would rigorously investigate the anglophone novel and the import of criticism post-theory, in fact the criticism was "unvigorous, unadventurous and not really critical"; presenting instead "review-essays" mostly of endlessly discussed books by endlessly discussed male authors like Roth, Amis, DeLillo, McEwan and Auster.

Robson is absolutely spot on about the book's failure to achieve its stated remit, but that doesn't stop the majority of the "review-essays" on offer being well worth reading, notably: Robert MacFarlane on The Line of Beauty, James Wood on Atonement, and Andrew O'Hagan on DeLillo.

The event at the LRB was, however, less entertaining, largely because the temperature in there was akin to some damp sub-tropical clime, but mostly because the discussion felt distinctly out of date.

Wood explained that reading had been freedom from his traditional and strict upbringing; that the "largely comic" form of the novel was a revelation in its ability to say and do anything. Wilson considered the controversy caused by the blurring of fiction and memoir via Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy. While Chaudhuri explained that as a writer he is drawn to the parts of a novel often discussed pejoratively, like background, description, setting - the spaces and gaps in between. He also touched on the idea of globalisation's impact on the literary, and how the novel has thrived amid the modern-day rhetoric of plenty.

But strangely for a project so concerned with the relevance of the novel, hardly anyone mentioned its present or its future. The essays themselves discuss novels published between 1984-2007, with the large majority in the 20th century, a fact that had left me untroubled on reading, but during the discussion struck me as strange. Here we were talking about books we knew, ideas we were familiar with... and for what?

By chance, I happened to be clutching a copy of Oliver Twist in my greasy mitts and its presence seemed a silent rebuke on proceedings; the immediacy and urgency of Dickens's prose, its total immersion in what was happening in the now, it's restless radical desire to tell us something.

I wondered if anyone would ask, is now a good time for the novel, particularly the debut novel? And if not, why not? Interestingly, it was only Lee Brackstone who began to consider this. He likened the term "literary" to "indie" (in relation to music) -- that is, a once precise term that now refers to a larger commercial mass -- and wondered aloud if the system, the pattern of publishing was really working. He asked are the right novels getting through, are we getting the novels we should?

Certainly the hothouse atmosphere made one want to stand up and shout "No! We are not!" just to stretch the legs. But Brackstone's point was important, suggesting as he was that publishing in the UK is conservative with a small "c", a world where Tom McCarthy is branded dangerously experimental, and Jennifer Egan too risky to make the Orange shortlist.

The Good of the Novel sheds an intelligent warming light on some key novels from the past 30 years, and it is comfortable and enjoyable and enlightening. But as I slipped back through the cool relief of the Bloomsbury streets towards Clerkenwell (as if I could well be making my way to some Saffron Hill den), I wondered, how can it be relevant to keep returning to Amis, McEwan, et al? Despite the huge numbers of novels published every year in England it feels as if we're stuck in the past. And if this book reminds us of anything, it's that the literary scene in the UK needs a good hard shake.

A C Goodall is a London-based writer, bookseller and editor.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
Show Hide image

Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game