Why There Are Fewer Original Novels…
Today’s column is a coalescence of several others I’ve been writing and thinking about for a while. It came to a head when I gave a speech at the Southbank Literary Festival about outsider status. I’d written before on the subject, but the speech introduced a number of outsiders from different centuries. The ultimates are Proust and Kafka, but literature is filled with them, and there’s the most unlikely outsider of all, Noel Coward, whose first work was about drug addiction and the young.
My brother Steven and I are similar in appearance but opposite in personalities. He’s married with two daughters and lives in the Kent countryside with dogs and chickens and fields full of foxes and deer. I suppose he’d describe himself as a liberal conservative. His wife is an addiction therapist. The family loves cars, and none of them are really that keen on London. They work very hard for increasingly little reward in our pension-and-credit-shrinking world, and we all get on pretty well.
But at some level, Steven considers me abnormal, an outsider whose knowledge of family units and ordinary everyday life is on a par with his knowledge of London’s arts scene. While I kept my old company populated with outsiders, the atmosphere was charged with creativity. If you compare my average week to my brother’s, I seem to have retained my outsider status. I’m happiest in the chaos of European cities, freefalling into new plans.
Outsiders can be as rigorous as their counterparts. Most of my friends in the arts work long hours because they are driven by personal passions. Most discoveries are made by those with outsider status. It’s rare that conformists create change.
However, outsiders become so because they reach maturity in isolation. If you listen to writers like Val McDermid or Ann Cleeves or Jake Arnott talking about their backgrounds, you realise they were different from those around them, and this outsider status has helped to make them who they are, feeding into their writing.
With the advent of social media the pressure is on us to conform, to be like our peers, to share the same things they do, to show that we fit in. To blog, vlog, download, upload, chat, post and comment. A new survey suggests that teens growing up in a fully connected atmosphere attempt to fit in and not stand out. Suddenly outsider status is no more.
An airport thriller, ‘The Girl On The Train’, seems to catch that mood. It’s about a commuter looking out of the window of her train and wondering about what she sees. It’s extremely mundane and simplistic, and hugely popular, but there’s a girl and she’s on a train and you get what you pay for – conformity with a bit of domestic suspense.
There are outsiders still writing of course, the unfailingly interesting Ned Beauman and Nick Harkaway, but they’re both sons of literati, Keith Ridgway, whose fractured style convinces me that he’s a classic outsider, Gary Indiana, whose wonderfully oblique works keep him very much on the outside – but no women I can think of except Brigid Brophy, who died.
I’d like to test this theory a little more – any examples/ ideas/ points of discussion?