Byline: JENNI RUSSELL . Sunday Times 1 Jan 2012
Two nights ago I stayed up until 3am, unwilling to put the light out until I had finished my book. I was reading that rare thing: a novel about contemporary life that felt revelatory, wise and true. I didn't want to leave the company of my characters until I had no choice. I was caught up in the thoughts and emotions of strangers' lives.
Novels have taught me how to live. They have taken me beyond the barriers of diffidence and convention into other people's private passions, longings and doubts. Through books I have known what it is to be a bewildered Russian count caught up in battle; a disillusioned Victorian wife married to a stolid bore; a clever, wary, socially insecure courtier to Henry VIII. I have been inside the minds of French revolutionaries, Philip Pullman's witches, Iris Murdoch's bedswapping couples, Marilynne Robinson's gentle, dying pastor.
Books have shown me how people struggle to make their existence meaningful, both in the past and in the present. But in one crucial respect the books being published and promoted now are failing me; few serious novels look at how ordinary people are dealing with the dilemmas of living in Britain today.
I read, with pleasure, historical novels, European and American novels, novels set in Africa or India. I look almost in vain for substantial books by literary names that might reflect something of the culture I inhabit. There are a handful of powerful books about being black or Asian in Britain: Brick Lane, Pigeon English, White Teeth. There are hundreds of chick-lit titles, with their simplistic emotions and unreal people. There are thrillers galore. What is missing are today's home-grown equivalents of Updike, Roth, Tyler, Shields and Franzen -- the confident chroniclers of swathes of middle-class life.
The big literary prizes are going to foreign, historical or small-scale books. I am baffled by the praise and prominence given to McEwan's Booker-shortlisted On Chesil Beach, or to Barnes's Booker prizewinner, The Sense of an Ending. Both are principally devoted to the close examination of the psyche of dull, mean-minded men. They are dismal, crabbed little narratives, without warmth or depth or exuberance, written in a limited emotional register. They flourish their elegant sentences, their self-conscious tricksiness and their implausible plot twists as if this were the point of writing. It isn't. Great writers offer more than this stunted view of humanity. They ally elegance to a sense of human potential as well as its limitations. That is what is absent here.
Everyone I discuss this with is hungry to read something broader and more humane than books like these because we want to understand society we live in. We also want to know how others handle conflicts in their lives because we want to know how to manage ours.
My friends in middle age, like everyone else, are dealing with private anxieties that occasionally surface in a moment of anguish.
Women married for 20 years despair about their loss of desire for their husbands. Men in second marriages find they have nothing in common with their younger wives. Parents watch with fear as their children drop out of university, or return home without confidence, ambition or jobs. Fiftysomethings fear their careers have peaked and their status and income will start to fall. They don't know how to face years of declining power and health.
Twentysomethings are haunted by the anxiety that their careers may never take off and they may never meet the right partner. The wealth of choices haunts everybody. Did I make the right one? How will others think of me? What did other people do?
Fiction has a unique role in providing this understanding. The conversations between friends cannot replace it. We are uncomfortable confessing to jealousy, weakness, family violence or surprising sexual preferences. We tend to keep truths like these to ourselves, so confidants cannot respond to them. Therapists listen but cannot advise. Ask them to place a problem in a context, to tell you how other people cope, and they will smile and shake their heads. They are not allowed to tell you how you fit in.
The explosion of media is no substitute for fiction, either. Blogs, journalism and internet forums let us eavesdrop on other existences as never before. None of these outlets performs the same job as stories do. Journalism offers only a snapshot of a life. Blogs give only a glimpse of what one person understands or is prepared to reveal about themselves. Internet forums are even less illuminating. I followed some threads recently in which women wrote about their marriage breakups. They could all be summarised as: the bastard left me and I don't know why. The readers' response amounted to: he's a pig and he didn't deserve you. Not much insight there.
Forty years ago, in a famous essay on the "new journalism", Tom Wolfe wrote with incredulity about the way novelists were so readily vacating the territory of social observation and leaving it to a new breed of journalists. Novelists had accepted the idea that as society fragmented it was no longer possible to capture the zeitgeist by writing about it.
They had reinvented themselves as niche writers -- novelists of ideas, or black comedy, or Freud, or surrealism. By the 1960s all "the most serious, ambitious and presumably talented novelists had abandoned the richest terrain of the novel; namely, society, the social tableau, manners and morals, the whole business of 'the way we live now' ".
The same preoccupations with fashionability, status and the difficulty of capturing what's happening in a fast-changing society are deterring novelists now. Writers and agents tell me it is easier to write and market genre fiction, or novels with a gimmick, than social realism. Turning reality into art is hard, unrewarding and leaves one open to potentially endless criticism. Novelists are forever making implicit moral judgments. That is a hazardous thing to do in a society that has become so uncertain about its shared values. No wonder so many writers prefer to stick to the microscopic, the historical, the self-consciously literary or the commercial instead.
The void left is immense, which is why I am grateful when I come across the few writers attempting to fill it. Observation alone won't do. What
I want from a novelist is perceptiveness allied to compassion and generosity. I want to be given a fresh understanding. Linda Grant, Justin Cartwright, Sebastian Faulks and Edward St Aubyn offer that, but the novelist I've been reading this week deserves a much higher profile.
William Nicholson's trilogy of life in contemporary Sussex, which begins with The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, is what's been keeping me up at nights. Nicholson follows a group of families, including unfaithful couples, sexually precocious teenagers and difficult grandmothers over the course of a week in each book. He writes about doubt, love, equivocation, treachery, loyalty and joy, but he does so with such empathy and shifts one's perspectives with such unobtrusive skill that he widens one's sense of what it means to be human. One finishes his books exhilarated by liking and understanding others more than one did before.
This is what art is for, even if the literary market rarely values it. There will always be a demand for mass-market fiction, and a smaller one for the anxious devotees of literature who feel narrowness and obscurity are a price worth paying for being seen to have elite tastes. What I am hoping for in 2012 is more authors and publishers with the courage to capture our times by telling us stories that are honest, intelligent and profound.