Apparently, novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici has launched an “outspoken attack” on the contemporary British novel. Though you wouldn’t know it from this article in the Guardian today, in which Josipovici sticks the boot into Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, all of whom began their careers in the mid-seventies.
To be fair to him, Josipovici appears to be reacting against a much-heralded “renaissance” in the British novel in the 1980s – Dominic Head’s recent book The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond echoes these sentiments – a perception chivvied along by the introduction of big-money, big-publicity fiction prizes and efforts to caricature the preceding post-war period in British fiction as provincial, parochial and anachronistic. Still, he’s lain in wait a good long while to launch his attack. Josipovici’s broadside seems rather more at home in the old “situation of the novel” turf wars between Malcolm Bradbury, Bernard Bergonzi and David Lodge, than the 2010, now-with-added-iPads, incarnation of this perennial debate.
Josipovici’s book is the latest (although with Barnes et al up against the wall, probably the most retrograde) iteration of recent debates that pitch the contemporary novel against a likely opponent and find the former lacking. For his modernism, see also near-constant speculation on the challenge to the novel’s primacy by non-fiction, the short story, and the entity that threatens not only the form but also the medium of the dog-eared, spine-cracked paperback, the internet. There’s certainly a debate to be had about the forms and functions of fiction today; in the midst of these portents of its own demise, the novel is being laden with moral and cultural imperatives as never before. However, these staged ties in the literary press seem like mere grist to the mill. It’s unclear to what end Grub Street’s hand-wringing is directed – is this ramping up of cultural anxiety intended to give our novelists a kick up the arse or just the opportunity for a little eschatological bandstanding? Let’s just say this isn’t the rigorous, robust debate we need on the fortunes of this most liberal humanist form after the death of liberal humanism.
Though, for sure, it’s gratifying to take pot shots at these “arrogant and self-satisfied” literary éminences grises, I’d question how valid – and indeed how radical – such an intervention is. Though what constitutes this Josipovici’s “modernism” remains unclear (it seems to reside, for the purposes of the Guardian article, in a rather woolly “sense of destiny”) the Amazon preview of the book tells me that he characterises modernism as “art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities”. I would suggest that both Grub Street and Ivory Tower might do similar.