JUNE 1981


Anne Smith


The results of Peter Mann's research into the readership of 'literary'novels (p. 5 of this issue) are depressing, i f predictable, but only because they emphasise what a great gap there is between the l i terati and ordinary folk who read books. Gore Vidal made the same point in conversation with Malcolm Bradbury and Melvyn Bragg in The South Bank Show (London Weekend Television 3 May) .

Vidal maintained that l i terature isno longer central to our culture, and that i ts place has been taken by film. He complained that, aside from a handful of 'old-timers'like himself and Saul Bellow, nobody cared much about the writing of fiction now. Instead, what we have is an academic industry in which, say, Professor X from Michigan writes 'novels' to be studied by Professor Y and his students in Boston, and vice versa. These things, Vidal argued, shouldn't be called novels at all, but 'literary texts'. The situation is exacerbated, he continued, by the fact that most book reviewers · now are academics. When I started The Literary Review a distinguished bookseller wrote to me and said he hoped I'd be able to find reviewers who would have the courage to criticise the novels now being written by the l i terary establishment. Why didn't someone point out, for example, that Naipaul quite obviously just doesn't l ike people any more, and that his novels have got harder and harder to read, since the genius and humanity of A House for Mr. Biswas?

A friend for whose intelligence I have the greatest respect recently told me that he's bought one or two 'literary' novels in paperback, feeling that there were great gaps in his reading. He discovered that he couldn't read them: they were too solid, too heavy, too intellectual. His confession came out with a great deal of embarrassment and hesitation; he was , 'humiliated by what he felt to be his own inadequacy.

Another friend, a writer, told me dolefully that 'the conceptual novel is on the way out'. I couldn't sympathise; I'm with D. H. Lawrence all the way when he says if you try to nail a novel down to a theory, i t just gets up and walks away with the nail-for the art of fiction should after all be an act of creation, in which the passion for life, or a passionate curiosity about life, is served by the intellect.

I say this with the utmost conviction, having just re-read some of Graham Greene"'s work, and Fay Weldon's Puffball (see p. 16): I was gripped and drawn in to the masterful telling of the tale, and made to feel not only as I read, but afterwards, that what happened to these characters' l ives had a great deal of meaning for my own; they changed my picture of the world from the heart out. A novel that doesn't do that is a failure.

A novelist who fails to communicate any sense of the significance, to us all, of his or her characters' l ives is a failure. And a much-feted novelist who is read by only his or her academic critics isn't l iving in the real world . I wonder what would happen to the novel if a moratorium were put on the teaching of Eng. Lit. in the universities for a couple of generations? Or if the Arts Council were forbidden to subsidise individual writers?

Arts Council

The Arts Council has in fact taken this decision, and not before t ime, because the bulk of i ts grants were given to middle-class writers 'who already had a comfortable income from other sources, or the education to obtain this. Blake Morrison sums up an 'unpublished report, which found that:

42 % ofthe writers receiving grants between 1975-78 l ived in L'ondon, and 82 % south of Cambridge; that 78 % were from professional or middle class backgrounds; that most had been educated at Oxbridge or London; that, in short, writers receiving Arts Council assistance did not represent a cross-section of the populace. Though not wholly convinced by talk of nepotism and cliquishness (it was found) that some writers who received grants, or sponsored the applications of others, did so


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