Smaller Subjects, Bigger Ideas

Reading & Writing


‘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.

12 comments on “Smaller Subjects, Bigger Ideas”

  1. John Howard says:

    Could Clive James be an exception to writing with humour damaging reputations? Referring to his novels rather than the rest of his output. As for the “grand mals” I like those when they are addressed by Peter Tinniswood.
    Glad to see in an earlier blog that you are working your fingers to the bone. The “next to read” pile is getting low.

  2. Roger says:

    Serious writers aren’t always solemn, though. Robertson Davies himself has a grim humour in his writings and one of the great English novelists of the twentieth century -Evelyn Waugh – was comic as well as serious.

  3. Steveb says:

    I think USA and Canada are far more long-run conservative societies than the uk. This makes it far more possible to look at long run trends through the generations. Ditto India maybe. UK doesnt have that long run stability. If I think about UK I think of for example the film East is East which I like very much and I think goes in many ways to the heart of this country but shows exactly why it’s hard to do this long-run thing in uk.

  4. Steveb says:

    As to ‘serious’ … don’t know. It seems writers in both US and UK get labelled as genre or serious.
    Evelyn Waugh seems a good counter-example to the ‘comic-cant-be-serious’ thing to me.
    Btw Laurence Durrell just occurred to me on the grand theme thing.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Anthony Burgess seemed to play with a lot of ‘big picture’ stuff. Also Michael Moorcock.

    Two of my favourite ‘small stuff’ books are the astoundingly moving ‘A Month in the Country’ and Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’. Both thoroughly English, trapping a specific time and a feeling, more in Amber Ale than amber.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I definitely think geography has something to do with it. I can only take so much at a time of sweeping American novels. Enjoyed Augie March, but it was tiring. Clive James is Australian, so don’t think he can be included.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    For once, I disagree. I feel that novelists are one of the few groups allowed to use humour while still being taken seriously. So many have. Try making a light remark or showing a lack of gravitas in any other profession.

    I am not convinced of the necessity of a big picture for a big truth, though it can make a compelling story. Do I need (or want to read) the whole Forsyte Saga to appreciate the independence of wealth from fulfilment?

    Certainly, writers strangely risk a loss of esteem if they become too popular, though financial success must be some compensation, but I guess that’s another story.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I think the “old rule” was cited once before and I still say that it doesn’t work because American students don’t have tutors. I’m not sure about the writer’s point. Is it that English writers “keep it clean” while American writers keep it correct?
    Robertson Davies wrote some very funny stuff before he tackled “Fifth Business”. I wonder when the beard arrived? I do like the quote, though.

  9. brooke says:

    ‘ …It’s a wise {writer} who recognizes the scope of his own generalizations…” to paraphrase J.K. Galbraith. Bravo, Helen and Peter T. for protesting. And David Foster Wallace?! Really… the poster child for neurasthenia, aka Americanitis, which focuses on small ideas indeed, namely I and me.

  10. admin says:

    To which I would add something a publisher once said to me; ‘You could win a major literary prize one day if you just learn to stay away from humour.’

  11. brooke says:

    As Samuel Clemens discovered.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    This is the reason I don’t pay a lot of attention to the prizes. It’s easy to make a reader feel depressed or worried. It is an invaluable gift to be able to make them laugh. I have already laughed out loud several times with Wild Chamber so perhaps it is time to institute the Fowler Prize for the best use of humour in a genre novel.

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