This essay is about the novel for the novel by a novelist. It has been written out of the silence of all those for whom it might speak and against the noise of all those who might oppose it.
The novel only exists because of the stories elaborated upon inside its pages. It would otherwise be an empty object of bookended blank paper or a black screen. So when we talk about the novel, we need to talk about the stories it contains; we also need to talk about the context of the novel, because only then can we discover what it really means in our society.
This essay is for the long-forgotten and overlooked originators of storytelling, the griots of Africa, the keepers of stories and histories who passed on what they knew through praise song and who later contemplated basic existential questions such as: who are we? From whence did we emerge and why? What is happening to us? How do we survive and relate to each other?
Yes, this is how storytelling began. In Africa, along with the human race. Imagine early African woman learning how to tell her children stories at bedtime in order to send them to sleep. Imagine the first storytellers working out that the only story worth telling was one where the subjects go off on an adventure and have to fight off sabre-toothed foes who try to stop them reaching their destination. Those African griots understood a long time ago that their stories needed to contain a strong element of embattlement in order to maintain the interest of their little nomadic communities, who sat rapt and cross-legged around the campfire while mythologies, cosmologies, family genealogies, stories and fanciful legends were passed down the generations through the oral tradition – ending the evening with a Kumbaya singalong.
Behold, over millennia, words took their first steps into physical form, tentative and monosyllabic at first, but they persisted and walked on to wax tablets where they left their footprints, until finding accommodation on papyrus and parchment, where they formed poems and stories, epics, edicts and essays. Eventually they moved on to paper, where ambitious, proliferating words began to move across the page as decorative ink, until such time as they became the somewhat militaristic march of print, until eventually, lo, the modern novel emerged!
This essay imagines the novel as a metaphoric metamorphic creature that inserts itself inside the hearts and minds of the people who want to be consumed by it, as it prowls around their psyche – adventuring, entertaining, educating, challenging, illuminating.
This essay is for the writer of the novel, the storyteller who wants to expand the consciousness and imaginative and narrative possibilities of life itself into longform fiction. So when we talk about the novel, we also need to talk about who is writing the novel and what they are choosing to write about. This essay stands for the idea that novels need to be generated by and speak to a variety of demographics – although we are not the sum of our supposed “demographics”, with billions of us roaming this planet, and the 66 million people in the UK, sometime we need a filing index system to make us more manageable. People might hate labels (fixed, fluid or otherwise) but they are useful for some purposes, especially for identifying and distinguishing between social groups, communities of people and interests, and levels of inequality. And while universality is generated by the specific in fiction, our lived realities are uniquely heterogenous.
This essay believes that there are multiple literary histories that are equally important in terms of the value placed on them by different social groups, who are de facto validated or invalidated by them – although those who have always been validated are unlikely to be aware of this as a consequence, or agree with this statement, and they might argue that it is an unnecessary and reductive response to any enquiry about the novel. While the novel does so much more than validate, for those of us who have been excluded, it’s useful to identify that process. We ask, where are we in the pages of the novel? Where are our narrative possibilities? What does it mean to not witness our lives inhabiting longform fiction? Does this mean we are not worthy, that our experiences have no value? Why are there so few novels out there by and about us, and is it entirely our responsibility to put ourselves at the heart of the story? What are the considerations when others do it? And why, when we do write novels about us, has it been so difficult for so many to find a publisher?
This essay argues for canons, plural, if we have to have them. It acknowledges that most canons were constructed by those who have always resided at the centre of academia, where texts are regarded as either primary or secondary, and the rest as unworthy or less worthy of serious study – even when they clearly are. It asks, what is the range of novels relative to this society that the young are being introduced to? How much are we broadening the minds of students through our reading lists? When we ask them to step inside the fictional lives of novels, which social groups are prioritised? In the hierarchy of literature, past and present, which novels are being presented as worthy of our critical attention by those with academic and cultural authority? What are the absences, how are they justified, and how do we redress this?
Many of the leading canon-creators of old were educated in all-male schools prefixed by the word “private”. They primarily went to one of two universities ending in “ford” and “bridge”, where they studied in all-male colleges and where their teachers taught them novels by white men who wrote primarily about white male protagonists. The tradition thus influenced each successive generation, and even today, in academia, when we talk about literary history in the 20th century, there are those who are resistant to exploring beyond the traditional canons, who refuse to engage in the conversations that have been ongoing for decades, actually, and who refuse to teach anything but what they call “great novels” – meaning novels by and about men, typically white – while denying the existence of an exclusionary culture that not just undervalues but ignores work by women, for example, or people of colour. Recently I was reading a book about contemporary fiction and out of the scores of books referenced, less than 10 per cent were not by and about white men. Needless to say, the author was of a certain generation and was the product of an education system involving the words private, ford and bridge, and has since resided in academia, where women still struggle to reach the top. Times have changed but it seems to me that authors such as this one can’t break out of their formative educational foundation.
When we talk about novels written by white men, most of the time we are talking about novels about white protagonists, usually male. This is not to say that writers shouldn’t write from all kinds of perspectives and across all kinds of perceived differences such as race or gender, but how many novelists actually do this? I won’t go into all the complexities involved with this issue here, but if, for example, there needs to be more black and Asian women in British fiction, the people most likely to put us there are ourselves.
Now, about this idea of great literature. Surely the measure of literary greatness cannot be presented as an absolute, objective truth without a debate that considers it as a balancing act between the evaluation of craft, complexity, substance, innovation and literary history, juxtaposed with individual aesthetic preferences, cultural and educational contexts and world views. While there might be a degree of consensus about the value of many novels as “great works” pre- and early-20th century, there is less consensus about postwar fiction, and little consensus, I imagine, about 21st century fiction, which is multitudinous.
Therefore, what are the underlying principles in the curation of reading lists for this later literature? How can we open it out? This essay challenges all those academics who still refuse to engage with progressive conversations and reassess their reading lists; all those academics who value whiteness and maleness over other demographics, an attitude that they pass on to the next generation of readers, thinkers, academics, publishers and critics. Perhaps these academics are simply lazy. Perhaps they can’t be bothered to do the research and aren’t curious about narratives beyond the parameters of their usual interests. It’s sometimes telling that when they appear in the literary pages talking about the books they’ve read recently, there is only a token gesture towards books not by and about white men. One cannot change or influence personal taste, but one hopes that academics teach beyond their own preferences and aesthetics. And there are those who dismiss certain modules as inferior – courses that teach books by writers who are otherwise excluded, in areas such as women’s fiction, world literature or the lesbian novel. A fully integrated reading list is a mind-expanding exercise that might involve a major revision of the curriculum.
But seriously, how can you teach the 20th century novel in English and not include (not as token gestures) a number of powerful and significant books from global majority writers, including novels by black writers such as: Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Passing by Nella Larsen, Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Maru by Bessie Head, The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips and Trumpet by Jackie Kay?
Shame on any creative writing course that doesn’t have a fully integrated set of reading lists for their students. How can academics present the writers of the future with such a limited palette of writers who are mostly white and writing whiteness? I’ve seen a few reading lists myself, and been told about others, and this is sometimes the reality: white, male, heterosexual and middle-class characters, writers and storylines. Imagine the crushing message that is sent to students who are only presented with these books, from whom they will learn their craft? The hashtag “decolonising the curriculum” is as important today as yesterday.
Novels investigate the self and society. We learn from them: they might interpret history for a contemporary readership; they might reimagine our world through fantasy; or hold a magnifying mirror up to our society today. Imagine what some university reading lists are saying about our society – that women and people of colour did not write in the 20th and 21st centuries, and certainly not novels worthy of beady academic analysis. Imagine someone from the future trying to understand who we were in the 21st century, based on the books taught in universities.
We only really understand the meaning of novels and novelists through the ages when we position them within the context of their time, understanding how some of their significance comes from the fact that they were, for example, trailblazers of movements leaving traditions behind, writing new narratives into being. The groundbreaking Their Eyes were Watching God was the first major novel by a black woman, and about a black woman, interrogating desire and relationships, conformity and community. Things Fall Apart embodies the battle between pre-colonial and colonial Igbo culture in Nigeria, and was written in response to the one-sided colonial accounts of the African continent. A novel such as The Joys of Motherhood looks at the conflict between traditional culture and customs and the Westernised Lagos of yesteryear, the jewel in the colonial Nigerian crown, while centralising womanhood and motherhood in what had hitherto been an overwhelmingly male literary tradition. Toni Morrison’s Beloved encapsulates America’s slave history (and for some of that time Britain was running colonies and the slave trade in the US, so it’s also British history) through the experiences of those who endured it. Trumpet by Jackie Kay challenges societal pressures and expectations around gender and queer lives and the struggle between being true to yourself and living a lie. They are all powerful novels. How can these major texts not sit alongside other major texts in English from the 20th century?
This essay challenges all those who reduce novels by the global majority – for white people are not the world’s demographic majority – to being solely about “identity”, which for the most part they are clearly not. It’s lazy, patronising and low-level critical thinking. Of course some of these novels do interrogate identity, in particular the work of younger writers, but most of them do not.
This essay challenges all those people who, if they ever consider the paucity of novels by global majority people in this country, regard it as a sign that we’re simply not good enough, which is why we don’t get published enough – as opposed to a more testing analysis around bias. And when we do have this conversation, the whataboutery of objectors often rears its ugly head. The yes but assertions that because there have been exceptions to the rule, the argument is null and void. Well, the exceptions can often function as a kind of tokenism, which is an insidious and major obstruction to real progress.
We need to get our shit together, too: more of us need to be writing our stories into being at a publishable level, but these works don’t need to be “great” – because most novels are not “great”, however we define it, and a lot of writers don’t necessarily aspire to greatness. We need to be publishing novels in every genre – crime, thriller, historical, horror, romantic, experimental – for every type of reader, while acknowledging that the seemingly strict delineations of these genres are porous. When we talk about the novel in academia, we tend to focus on literary fiction, which tends to receive a high level of critical attention, while typically not reaching large audiences. The value of literary fiction in academia is not usually measured by its commercial value, which is a good thing (otherwise I would have been dropped by my publisher years ago), but rather it is valued for its investigation of ideas and language, its breadth and depth, narrative originality and innovation, complexity and even difficulty. Yes, we need literary fiction at the heart of our literary culture, but we also need Britain’s global majority writers writing every other kind of novel – the books that dominate the charts and keep the wheels of the publishing economy turning, the kinds of books that meet the appetites of the thrill-seekers, romantic-love addicts, crime-solvers, people who enjoy feeling scared.
And when we do get our shit together, the literary editors have to be on board and make sure we’re interviewed and reviewed – not just the hyped-up books with big budgets behind them, but the little gems with the smaller publishers, who are routinely ignored.
When novels by the global majority are indeed celebrated, the few who break through, there are those who says it’s because of “political correctness” rather than due to the quality of the work –work they are very unlikely to deign to read. It’s a fad, they cry out. The implication is that this represents a shift in culture towards inferior fiction – a favouring of these unworthy writers who’ve come out of the woodwork, who are simply part of the liberal left’s “box-ticking exercise” – instead of great art, by which they mean novels that will withstand the test of time, declared with the arrogance of clairvoyance. It’s not about who writes the novels or their subject matter, they proclaim – as if there is no cultural context to literature and publishing books, as if we are living in an equal society, as if arguments around inclusion and social justice are piffle, irrelevant excuses, signs of intellectual inferiority. Who cares who the writers are, they say? Great literature is divorced from such petty concerns!
Global majority writers appear hyper-visible in this context, noticed because they deviate from the norm of whiteness, although there aren’t actually many of them, but for some people even a few is too much. They are denounced as an ephemeral aberration because they are supposed to continue to exist in the shadows, looking longingly on to the well-lit stage.
This essay notes that novels by women and about women are often demeaned by the longform patriarchs and their accomplices, as “domestic”, even today, even when they are not. And even if they are, the domestic sphere is where most of us live out the majority of our lives, so what, exactly, is inferior about it? On the other hand, when male novelists write about the domestic sphere, they are considered to be ruminating on the meaning of life, the “human condition”, the state of the nation, the universe, everything.
It might appear that a certain kind of longform patriarch, and his accomplices, who have looked down their noses at everyone else since time immemorial, are on their way out, especially when some of them have been heard to proclaim that the novel is dying – and even dead. So what hope is there for them? They have consigned their own careers to an early grave. Perhaps they have no idea about the state of the novel, because they still mainly read identity novels by and about people like them. They are the true identarians who have no idea that the novel is thriving because of the fresh perspectives and narratives infusing it with new ideas, stories, cultures, life – because they don’t actually read them.
This essay is for all the people who have not peopled all the novels published in our country; who are simply absent from them, or, especially in the not-so-distant past, who are presented as half-brained women to be objectified and fucked, cardboard cut-out working-class or queer stereotypes, criminals. This is for all the people who have written novels that have never made the transition into book form because they were not considered marketable, topical or mainstream enough, in spite of the brilliance of their writing and storytelling. The manuscripts from Caribbean-origin novelists that nobody was interested in picking up because Caribbean fiction hasn’t been in fashion since the Fifties. The novels by African writers that weren’t picked up because they weren’t about internal strife or the tragedy of brutalised street children. The novels by Asian writers that weren’t about arranged marriages or considered exotic enough. All the queer novels because they’re simply too “niche”. All the novels about working-class lives because “gritty realism” is so yesterday and the stories just aren’t relatable – not surprising when the industry is so middle-class. All the novels by black British writers – because we have one on our list already.
This essay imagines a future literary landscape with a wide range of totally inclusive novels on our bookshelves, on our reading lists, in our homes, in the imagination of each new generation. Every genre, every kind of author, each kind of narrative. A wider range of voices, cultures, perspectives can only enrich what already exists and will contribute to a more inclusive education system and a more egalitarian society.
This is an edited version of the New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize lecture, delivered on 30 September 2020
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid