Do good novelists have to write good novels?
Picture a novelist. They are young by the trade’s standards, nettable by the broadest definitions of ‘Millennial’ and maybe by some slimmer ones. They have a humanities degree from a respected, non-Oxbridge university in the UK or Ireland and a masters from a similar but different institution. Perhaps for a short spell they lived abroad, and they considered at one point applying for a PhD – as much for the funding as because of any surging desire to be an ‘academic’ – before deciding against it, and getting a job in, say, a bookshop to shoulder the cause of their writing. Grafting to little reward for a number of years, living semi-transiently in flatshares in London or Dublin or Manchester, they have a piece published somewhere prominent, then another, then engage a helpful, watchful agent, and sign a deal for a novel, which is published to a degree of acclaim they wouldn’t have been remotely capable of conceiving three years previously. Their fiction is saluted for its relevance, for its spokespersonish utility, and because of this they are sometimes interviewed about things not pertaining immediately to their work, and when this happens they proffer not just the Olympian liberalism established authors have tediously perfected, but a range of commendable, generationally tuned insights on where we’re at.
Is it important whether or not this writer is any good at writing? In fact, such a question needs narrowing somewhat. Is it important whether this author, for all their radiant decency, is in some way shoddy? That their work is hackish of simile or plot-clumsy or fetishistically descriptive? This is a version of an old question answered both by Orwell – who thought ‘good bad books’ had moral virtues while lacking in aesthetic ones – and, canonically, by Sartre (to whom I’ll return). Though, if the problem is just the recurrence of a longstanding one, do the circumstances in which it re-presents itself lend it peculiar singularities and nuances? Can the good-bad still be justified, afforded by these unnervingly weird times?
The contingencies of contemporary literary judgement I refer to are tangled. The first of them is perhaps the easiest to anticipate: that even to pose the question of what is ‘good writing’ is over-determined by the history of the ‘good’ as a buttress of privilege – who is asking whom to be ‘good’ – and by the sheer dull weight of centuries of arguments about what ‘good’ is.
Millennial authors are excluded from the highest stratum of assumed meaningfulness by the down-punching of a literary elite who inhabit it currently: the unshiftable McEwans and Amises and so on, who seem to see the under-40s merely as touchy complainers. Consequently, there are a number of worthwhile reasons to move very tentatively in the vicinity of the suggestion that writing can be ‘bad’ in a fashion which has little to do with what it advances. Yet the second particularity approaches almost as if from the opposite direction: the decibelic emphasising of content, of what a novel talks about, is one of the contemporary literary industry’s most dependable sales strategies. A novel’s quality of being reducibly about something has become absolutely primary, because that pointed aboutness is what can be made timely and therefore lucrative. Think of how a piece of fiction as formally unforgiving as Chris Krauss’ I Love Dick was able to have a second, far more successful, life as a ‘novel for the #MeToo generation’ once all its giddying textuality was played down or overlooked entirely by reviewers homing in on its topicality.
The third thing that intervenes in any consideration of ‘good bad books’ in the 21st century, cutting across the others, is the ongoing halcyon of Young Adult fiction, a genre whose typically miserably thematic nature has increasingly come to condition a generation’s perception of what ‘serious’ literature is (grim, kind, schematically allegorical). ya often sets itself unequivocally on the side of generational concerns about gender, sexuality and race in a way that established authors tend to see as plain disagreeable or as embarrassingly committed. But if this has a social benefit – and it does seem to have nurtured a notably conscientious, if anxious, generation – it also tends to favour interpretative simplicity and moral catharsis, while sidelining concerns deemed to be trivially aesthetic.
It isn’t that theme is not present for the McAmises. Indeed, McEwan’s work in particular tends towards grating topicality: a Brexit novel, one about climate change, that one about cyborg-sex. The corona-fiction will surely be with us soon. Yet the writers who ascended in the late seventies and early eighties were able to recapitulate their reducible theme as an aesthetic, because the theme was uncertainty. Hamlet – rewritten, vexingly, by McEwan in Nutshell – is their touchstone because it dramatises the impossibility of decision, something which they took to be axiomatically good because it seemed anathematic to the one thing they at the time thought was axiomatically bad, namely Soviet communism. So, not only did these cultural Cold Warriors write novels brimming with moral irony and narrative and perspectival trickiness, they and their contemporaries tended to heavily and exaggeratedly advocate on behalf of any writer who had worked in Eastern Europe since 1945 whose output could be seen as vaguely critical of ‘totalitarianism’. Indeed, the mournful yet shagadelic ironies of someone like Milan Kundera came to be seen as intrinsically anti-totalitarian.
Even if many younger writers uninterested in quixotically prolonging the Cold War achieve anything like commercial recognition, they continue to struggle to be recognised with genuine seriousness. McEwan, Amis, Salman Rushdie and a handful of uniformly male others still get to be seen as the uniquely wise figures of English literature – an open-ended tribute to their role as laureates of uncertainty. Not for nothing is a posthumously assembled collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens, among the signal intellectual influences on this now-greyed cluster, called And Yet…, a title which celebrates commitment to nothing other than the lack of finalising judgement.
As I noted while profiling my hypothetical author at the outset of this essay, they too are asked, nowadays, to comment on issues beyond the immediate scope of the literary, albeit with their niche clearly marked as millennial/ feminist/ queer/ of colour. This framing of special interest means that, while the broadsheets make a display of munificent tolerance in playing host to their ‘relevance’, the McAmises get to go on being treated as an intellectual standard in the upper-middlebrow taste-lab of the broadsheet press, (witness Amis’ distinctly un-anti-totalitarian suggestion that the ‘Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’).
Notwithstanding the fact that these seasoned authors actually have little, if anything, to say to the present – when did you last read a genuinely surprising piece of commentary by any of them? – this puts Millennial authors on the back foot, in the permanent position of being somehow answerable to all the punching down.
Sartre’s line on something like this was that ‘in danger or in difficulty one grabs any instrument’: prose is there to be an effective representational, informational and even polemical tool, and for everything else we have poetry. Prose is, as the structuralists liked to say, ‘transparent’. Prose means what it declares it means. Cornered by relevance, millennial fiction can come to look rather Sartrean, rather vehicular at times, and one might expect it to become even more so, the more epochal our various crises become. There is a natural tendency to want to offer support to anyone who seems to have the right line, or at least a good one, and – again – aesthetic judgement all too often blunders into where it hasn’t been invited. But should it be suspended in favour of the ‘any instrument’ argument?
Another way of thinking about this question might wonder what aesthetic strategies beyond bruising clarity are available to a more politicised generation of novelists, and whether or not it is possible to simultaneously make judgements about these strategies’ instrumental efficacy and their capacity to Take The Novel Forward. Are these – can these be – the same thing? One wonders, for example, about a novel like Anna Burns’ Milkman, not the work of a millennial as such but certainly not from the school of open-necked pontification. Burns’ novel is highly technical, and, yes, ironic, but its ironic technique differs markedly from those which have characterised ‘serious’ fiction since the Three-Day Week, which is to say that it isn’t really used to inculcate interpretative uncertainty.
The Amis-generation novelists have tended to defer to the unreliable narrator or uneasy focalisations as apex demonstrations of skill: this has been funny (Amis in Money) or moving and comparatively politically pointed (Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day), but it has also been annoyingly bravura (McEwan in Atonement) or glibly over-technical (Amis’ Time’s Arrow). Even bearing in mind this variance, though, the point is that the high-concept rug-pull has been the privileged device of the ethic and aesthetic of anti-totalitarian uncertainty these novelists cleave to. By contrast, Milkman is excessively reliable and ingenuously certain: its irony lies in how it presents this confidence in an idiom of euphemism which calcifies throughout the book until a conclusion in which nearly everything has been synonymised, including synonyms themselves. Milkman is lexically linked to the work of Eimear McBride, another not-quite-Millennial novelist. Burns’ and McBride’s novels both turn this repertoire of precise saying by radically not saying to the kinds of feminist political purpose that Sartre might insist would best be served by ‘any instrument’.
These texts lean so far into euphemism precisely because they want to think about the sexual politics of euphemism. Here, poetics are used in a demonstration of how content cannot make it alone, that the rendering of theme is a vital part of theme, that irony need not mean equivocation, that technique, strategy and experiment can all complement the comparatively high level of ‘aboutness’ Millennial fiction seems to offer.
There are two, sequential points here. The first is that the aesthetic – or technique – can still be politicised. I don’t have space for list-making here and I dislike over-listy essays anyway, but Burns and McBride are very far from being isolated examples of what I’m talking about. Technique does not have to be surrendered to the province of airy equivocation that will probably end up being the real legacy of the McAmis generation. The second point is diplomatically precarious and is something like ‘let’s not wreck the Millenial novel by patronising it through suspending aesthetic and technical judgement’.
I want to return to my hypothetical novelist, who may or may not be the grabber of any instrument. If their work is technically uninteresting, or bad, are we letting a side down in making this claim? Might we generously leave such things unremarked, allow their work to be ‘good-bad’ but be polite enough not to say so? There is some ground for doing so given the envirused and antagonised state of things, but there also needs to be scope for holding together a sympathy to theme with a more demanding attitude to what is possible in other fields of judgement. To be forced by circumstance into absolute utilitarianism – the book is good which means well – is already to cede ground in a war of position, and ultimately counter-productive: it sees fiction as intrinsically capable of offering solutions, rather than as a means of negotiating a sense of understanding from the barely comprehensible world.