All this is not to say that some difficult novels are not truly ghastly. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, you could say that pretentiousness is the tribute that mediocrity pays to genius. I remember a colleague on a judging panel surveying the gathered novels and saying, with a certain roll of the eyes: “There’s a lot of … fine writing in here.” By this he meant overwrought bad writing. The idea of literary fiction – in particular the idea that it is intrinsically high-status or, worse, “important” – is the rock on which many ambitious second-rate writers bark their shins. It’s what gives us plotless novels choked with portentous metaphors and pseudo-profound ruminations, novels that mistake difficulty for accomplishment or, worse, solemnity for seriousness.
Only a fool says writing isn’t political. People are subjects in history, and so are fictional characters. But the novel is in the category of art, and art is something special, irreducible. It is not a vehicle for a message. Still, a good novel might prompt people to ask themselves questions that don’t have easy answers, and to take a break from themselves and consider the lives of other people and the mechanics of the world, and meet new streams of comedy and grief. There is always some surplus that isn’t exactly political, but it cannot be separated cleanly from the society one lives in.
There are certain novels – and I’m sure it’s like this for every science fiction reader – from which you only need revisit a couple of pages to be reminded of why it is that you’re crazy about science fiction. Novels that churn up memories so powerful they bring tears to your eyes. You know there are no novels quite like this in mimetic literature, that in some incalculable yet inarguable way they articulate what being a reader and being a writer is about.
I’ve never been able to understand the assumption that being ignorant of science is good for poets, or that being ignorant of economics and social organisation is good for novelists. I’ve always imagined that the more curious about the world you are, the more you’ll have to bring to your characters and to the worlds you spin around them. I’ve speculated that one reason too many American novelists haven’t developed but, rather, have atrophied, producing their best work out of concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even identify powerful forces in our society, they can’t understand more than a few stories.
Marge Piercy, ‘Port Huron Conference Statement’, in My Life, My Body from PM Press
I have no time for the kind of criticism that gets up on its hind legs about how people are now “politicising art” or “ramming their agenda down our throats”. My dude, the canon is already full of politics. It’s just that when those politics align with the existing grain of society, they lie flat against it, snug and barely visible.
“I’ve got 30 days to declare a change in circumstance and this is one hell of a change”, said the writer Anna Burns during a news interview about winning the Man Booker prize for Milkman. The novel is about a teenage girl living in an unnamed Northern Irish city during the Troubles, who is being pursued by an older paramilitary dubbed the Milkman – and Burns managed to write it in chronic pain, while on benefits. The £50,000 prize would help to clear her debts, she said. In the acknowledgements, she thanked her local food bank, housing charity and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as other governmental and non-governmental bodies set up to help people in poverty. If there were to be a Booker winner to blow Julian Barnes’s description of the Booker as “posh bingo” out of the water, this is it.
Burns’s win will give hope to other poor artists, especially those struggling and skint, with no connections, who went to crap schools or are suffering rubbish circumstances – stuck with “shit life syndrome” in other words. What a symbol of the times we live in, that a woman who was forced to rely on food banks to survive has won the most prestigious literary prize in the country.
We hear so much about the cultural sector being dominated by upper-middle class tastemakers, some of them horrendous snobs, many of whom know each other. And there is truth to this: it is a tiny bubble. But Burns shows you can be radically different and still burst the bubble open.
Perhaps this is why the reception to the news in some quarters has been bizarre. Milkman has been branded a difficult book. It isn’t. It’s written how many people speak. To a normal reader, from a normal background, it reads like a girl from school trotting alongside you down the road, telling you a story. Often, there is an implication that people who are disadvantaged can’t cope with literary fiction. Milkman turns this on its head: if you went to public school, didn’t grow up in a working-class community and only read a certain type of novel, then yes, you might find it difficult – opaque, even. “I couldn’t put it down and I was brought up on a council estate. That may be the point,” wrote one reader to this newspaper. “The embattled working-class community and the mock-heroic demotic are done brilliantly.” As is so often the case in Britain, whether you get Milkman or not could be a class thing.