Sunday, May 06, 2007

Is it me, or has British fiction lost the plot?

Looking at my bookshelves, I'm struck by the fact that most of the novels I read are by European or American authors. I don't set out to ignore British writing, but there is something about it that turns me off. Out of the six novels I've read this year (yes, only six, but I'm reading more non-fiction this year), three of them were written by authors born in Barcelona, two were written by Americans and one was by a Frenchman.

There are several reasons why this might be the case. First, I may have some innate prejudice against a lot of British writers because they write about a middle-class world that is alien to me. That statement would seem laughable to anyone who knew me as I seem the epitome of bourgeois values, but I grew up in a working class environment and still feel detached from people like Julian Barnes and William Boyd. Second, I think that there is a reluctance in British fiction to tackle big ideas and with the exception of David Mitchell, most attempts usually fall flat on their face. Third, it may simply be a case of feeling empathy with the 'otherness' of non-British writers.

Of course it could be argued that there is no such thing as British writing (and I'm sure that many in Scotland would assert this view) but all I can say is that as a bookseller, when I look at the piles of novels by British authors, very few of them excite me. British fiction seems to aspire to capture the zeitgeist, but I want a novel that questions it and makes me look at the world in a different way, giving a voice to something I've felt but have been unable to articulate. And most of all, I want to finish the novel thinking 'Wow'. The last time an English writer did that to me was when I read Cloud Atlas.


Gonçalo Veiga said...

Hello Steerforth! Who are the authors from Barcelona you've read? :)

Steerforth said...

Hi Goncalo,

The authors are Pablo Tusset, Albert Sanchez Pinol and Javier Garcia Sanchez.

I'm am just about to start reading Saramago's Ensaio sobre aLucicez. Have you read it?

JDStephen said...

I would certainly agree that "British" fiction is a misnomer and that Scottish fiction does have a distinct identity.
"English" fiction can tend to an obsession with the middle class but there is more of the working class tradition represented in Scottish fiction (Kelman, Welch etc. spring to mind.)
Perhaps it's just that Britain is too class-riddled still, that British writers are too locked into their own backgrounds to give an overview of society as a whole.
For an unusual take on this you could maybe have a look at Scottish writer Jack Deighton's "A Son Of The Rock" - ten years old now - which manages to combine a love story with his comments on modern society in a "condition of Scotland" novel while setting the whole in an alternate future hundreds of years from now.
J D Stephen

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll order it tomorrow.

Gonçalo Veiga said...

Thanks for the references. No, I haven't read that one yet. I believe it's a continuation of Blindness. By the way, your Portuguese is getting better than ever! ;)

Rivs said...

As an aspiring british author that writes almost exclusively about the working classes of this country I can tell you why there aren't many books of that kind about - no bugger will publish them!

I've been told a number of times that while my books are good, colourful, gripping etc. there is no market for that kind of story and as such no point in publishing them.

On the other hand they may just be being nice and letting me down gently!