Smaller Subjects, Bigger Ideas
‘You can get away with anything if you keep a straight face.’ – Galton & Simpson
Serious writers win the big awards. America has a history of excellence in the Big Fiction stakes, consistently producing intelligent, analytical, clear-eyed novels that look at the bigger picture, exploring the themes of the times. These books are often multi-generational family sagas, with touches of satire, and deal with society’s grand mals, loss, betrayal, failure, ambition, sexuality, cruelty, honour. Canada has a long history of such fiction too. It’s something we don’t seem to do anywhere near as well in the UK.
Why is this? Are we shaped more by our geography? We often adopt a rather louche, sidelong approach to modern fiction, tackling those big subjects from lateral viewpoints. Even Hilary Mantel’s exhilarating ‘Wolf Hall’ saga has a wonderfully relaxed air and yet minutely focussed air about it. There are some sensational US modernists who have done the same thing like David Foster Wallace, but generally the old rule* holds true.
As I’ve often pointed out here, writing with humour seems to damage reputations and it’s only when we remain serious that we are taken seriously. Yet there are other styles of novel that can be taken seriously which don’t have to encompass grand themes. John Preston’s ‘The Dig’ is a novel set in 1939 about the Sutton Hoo archeological find of an Anglo-Saxon longboat and its effect on everyone involved, but within its brief length it touches on lost love, impermenance, death, hope and beauty.
Taking a seemingly small subject and using it to illustrate some of life’s problems is, it seems to me, a rather British approach, and is what I’ll be attempting next.
*English writers write as if their mothers are looking over their shoulders. American writers write as if their tutors are looking over theirs.