Why There Are Fewer Original Novels…

Reading & Writing


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?

10 comments on “Why There Are Fewer Original Novels…”

  1. snowy says:

    Well being me, I’d counter every single point of your contention, BUT only for the fun of it, [and not the family stuff], just because I can. 😀

    [And because having a premise challenged, helps to weed out the flimsy bits and leads to a more robust and considered position.]

    However because my response has to follow the narrative layout of your piece, I hit a stumbling block early because of Noël Coward. Why do you consider his status as an ‘outsider’ unlikely?

    When thinking of a comparable female author that might fit within the apparent definition, my first thought went to Angela Carter, who wrote some wonderfully strange books. But sadly she is allso no longer writing.

  2. Vivienne says:

    All species need some outsiders – difference means the possibility of change vital for survival in hostile times. Humans have evolved to be pretty adaptable, so maybe we have always had outsiders pushing the boundaries. Conformity and rigidity don’t give much room for individual expression, but weren’t Proust and Kafka reacting against the rigid social and political backgrounds they were enduring?

    I’m not suggesting that women’s lives are easy, but there’s less restriction on us these days, here anyway, so maybe that lack of pressure leads to a lack of novel writing – those outsiders are being creative in other ways.

  3. admin says:

    Coward became an establishment symbol and is now thought of as the author of proscenium-arch comedies, not someone who once dabbled in British Grand Guignol and socially relevant plays.
    Find me a really top novel about who we live now and I’ll dive into it!

  4. snowy says:

    Assuming this is just a five minute argument* and not the full half hour.

    Coward was always establishment, his Mother’s Father was quite high up in the Navy. Coward then went on to be a Royal chorister, dabbled in a bit of theatricals and then was picked up by one of Oscar Wilde’s cast-offs. At the death of Streatfeild, a well socially connected painter, he became the project of the wealthy socialite Mrs Astley Cooper.

    And he wrote comedies/revues whose very function is to poke fun. Writers tend to write about things they know about, especially when starting out and Coward new all about the Establishment as he was part of it. His stance was not that of someone who wished to bring the edifice down, but that of youth sticking two fingers up to the old guard.

    He only** wrote two pieces that could be described as approaching anywhere near social realism, ‘This Happy Breed’ and ‘In Which We Serve’. Both propaganda pieces, the former a rather parodic/patronising view of the good old ‘British Working Class’ and the latter ‘Downton Abbey’ on a boat ship.

    As to Cowards ‘shocking themes’ his views were crystallised during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ a period of extreme liberty for young people of a certain class or wealth. This was the ‘Jazz Age’ and you could drink, smoke, snort, shoot-up and shag as much, [and whoever you wanted], as your social and financial circumstances would allow***. None of Cowards themes would have outraged his peers, the older generation of the time might have been annoyed by him revealing such antics to public view, but they had in their turn got up to similar ‘high-jinks’ in their own pasts.

    The retrospective view that this was all ‘terribly shocking’ comes from a few reviews from crusty old critics scribbling copy designed to please their editors and/or demonstrate their intellectual superiority.

    There is also a collective forgetfulness just how raucous this period was because of the hardships of the next three decades, during which almost every trace memory of the period was erased. The following World War destroyed not only the individuals, but the very structures that allowed them to exist. Stately homes too ravaged by years of neglect/war use, the imposition of Death Duties, the disappearance of the ‘Servant class’, social change etc. were all blows from which it could never recover to it’s former levels. It’s like the period never happened,

    Coward was never an ‘outsider’, he was massively indulged throughout his career, though the ‘Establishment’ of which he belonged would probably preferred if he was going to get his ‘winkie’ out, that he directed his stream outside the ‘tent’ rather than in.

    [Similar cases can be made against Kafka and Proust.]

    *I’ve always fancied myself in a swishy black robe/gown thing and the horns do so match my eyes, [on a bad morning].
    **Could be wrong but I can’t find any others, g’won gissa clue?
    *** The excesses of ‘Pre-Code’ Hollywood will not be news to you.

  5. snowy says:

    Hmm. that is quite a lot on Coward.

    Might have to have a bit of a breather before returning to those that self-define as ‘outsiders’ because that is a load of ‘toffee’ as well.

    I’m not big into ‘socially relevant’ novels describing how we* live today, I usually look out the window or go for a walk among those ‘people’ things.

    [*Definitions of exactly who(m) ‘We’ is depends on where you stand and ones own personal circs, do they not?]

  6. snowy says:

    And I should of removed my Diabolic Advocates garb after the words ‘…as well’.


  7. admin says:

    Burn a feather under his nose, someone!
    Hmm…I seem to recall that when Colin Wilson wrote ‘The Outsider’ it turned out that him living on Hampstead Heath was a way of avoiding maintenance payments.
    I do think Ned Beauman has an original way of thinking, considering he’s ‘establishment’, and Keith Ridgway is defiantly odd…

  8. snowy says:

    Fear not, I’ve removed to Pommeroy’s for a few glasses of something called “Chateau Thames Embankment”, according to my new boon companion, [I found him wandering about in the street in a rather crumpled state.]

    Seems to be a cheery chap, [but somewhat obsessed by the works of ‘H. Rider Haggard’, for some unaccountable reason!]

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Anyone dare to add to this?

  10. snowy says:

    I might, but after 7 bottles of Chateau TE last night and waking up in a hedge this morning I’m feeling a touch fragile. And I’m not sure the computer screen will stop swaying about long enough.

    I might just set some required* reading instead.

    Hancock: The Poetry Society.

    Oh please, Sidney, work, work. Work is the biggest restrictor of men’s minds. They can’t allow themselves to be hampered by the menial soul-destroying labour of everyday jobs. Work, to them, represents the Establishment, and they’re against that.

    Well, what do they live on, then?

    National Assistance.

    Oh, they’re not against that part of the Establishment, then?

    Won’t you ever understand?

    Well, who’s providing the food and drink for the poetry reading classes?

    Well, I am, of course.

    Oh…they’ve got no objection to you going out to work and owning a house and having money, then?

    Well, the question has been raised; my having money is bit of an embarrassment to their aims, really, but they suggested I get rid of it.

    Well, they’re doing their best to help you.

    (Knock at the door)

    Open the door. The outsiders are outside. Well I’m off, and I’m taking my bottle of brown ale out of the sideboard, I’m not letting any outsiders get outside of that.

    [*Not required at all, full episode linked above.]

Comments are closed.