Subscribe
Notify of
guest

28 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

My friends who used to read, but now don’t, say that all the good writing has moved to TV – the streaming services. If those earlier writers were alive today perhaps they would be churning out scripts for Netflix.
I still read novels and find that modern life is represented in them, even if they aren’t the encyclopaedic novels of the nineteenth century. I’ve mentioned before that a writer like Kate Atkinson is pretty good at covering the different classes and their concerns.
I suppose I treat all modern novels as suspect: I don’t want to read about a character who has been sexually abused, is crushed by the impending doom of climate change, and is worrying that they are probably trans. I hear of award-winners like Shuggie Bain and think ‘wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole’.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago

Yeah not very edifying. I don’t think I would touch them either.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

A very engaging essay about a subject that wouldn’t usually interest me.
The modern publishing industry seems to be obsessed with progressivism (look at what happened to Kate Clanchy). I doubt the struggles of ordinary people are of much interest to agents and publishers except to show the alleged inherent corruption and racism of Western society.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You summed up perfectly what I feel like when visiting a bookshop these days.
Ironically, given the emphasis in “progressiveness” being inflicted on us, a typical non white reader would be far more likely to be enthused by Wodehouse or Shakespeare than most of the modern output that is inflicted upon us.

I spent my childhood gobbling up Enid Blyton.
When I search for books for my daughter at Waterstones the children’s display desk is dominated by books with female characters (which gives you a hint why boys are falling behind so badly at reading and education). However, I don’t see anything that comes even close to my treasured Blytons in terms of imagination, in capturing the sheer joy of childhood and adventure.

I understand Blyton is a deplorable today. But my somewhat brown skinned daughter is going to inherit my stock, and I suspect the lucky girl will enjoy the assorted fives, sevens and find outers far more than the approved stuff.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Ann Jenkins
Ann Jenkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

That’s fascinating. I’m finding children’s fiction absolutely brilliant at the moment, and my 8 year-old boy is inhaling it! I feel he’s read a real balance of books with boys as lead or co-lead characters. My favourite recent examples from the last year or so include the Clifftoppers books; The Land of Roar series; Eerie-on-Sea mysteries; and the adventures on trains books. Yes, he read the Faraway Tree books (the first was read to his Reception class in a South London primary school), Famous Five etc before these. Recommend trying a local independent bookshop for suggestions, or contacting Bookwagon (small online children’s book specialists) as they are also very responsive and helpful.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I agee. Enid Blyton was great. I don’t really know why they cancelled her. Something to do with the schools banning her I think.

Laurence Target
Laurence Target
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

Ghastly prose.

John Solomon
John Solomon
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

I loved Blyton when I was a child : it never occurred to me (a working class Scottish boy) that the characters in the Famous Five were ghastly over-privileged middle class English children – I just liked the stories, and rather envied (in a nice way) their adventures somewhere other than dirty, smoky, Glasgow. her characters did not start to irritate me until I got a lot older (just as I did not realise quite what a posh *rse James Bigglesworth was until I got quite a bit older – still good stories, though!) I now wonder whether any child reading any of those stories identified with the oiks (the servants, the mechanics) rather than with the central characters (the posh kids, the pilots). I bet they didn’t.

John Solomon
John Solomon
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I hope, if you are going to get your daughter to read Blyton, you do not overlook the wonderfully named Mr Pink-Whistle………….

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

A tad delayed, but thanks for the recommendation!

Alastair H
Alastair H
2 years ago

As a fairly avid reader, the main difference I notice between contemporary works and older ones is the lack of telos.
In Dickens, Chesterton, and Dostoyevsky there is always some kind of deeper purpose behind the novel. It might be about life in poverty, but it’s also about the essence of the human soul. It’s about battling/coming to terms with evil and appreciating the good in life.
In most books I read from nowadays, even if they are very well written, the meaning at the end of them is pretty unclear. They’re frequently just nice stories for stories’ sake. The fear of “moralising of a novel” often leads to a focus on “grey morality”. But more often than not, that’s a path to “grey stories”.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Bit off topic perhaps but I’ll write this anyway:
I recently found a copy of “Home From the Hill” by Hilary Hook on my local public bookshelf and, having read it, think that this book should be read by British schoolchildren.
A book written by someone who was out in the British Empire in its twilight years – describing his life and his adventures in a world and a Britain which have long disappeared – in an almost entirely unsentimental fashion. It’s quite a swashbuckling tale and highly entertaining but also full of historical detail, exchanges and critical insight into colonialism by someone who was there. As such, it is a valuable work.
It might just help to inject some reason back into the debate as my impression is that the processing of British history has been overtaken by hysteria and certain political agendas.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

You could make an argument that the absolute plight of the working classes has been resolved in readers’ minds by the Welfare state, and a novel about the relative plight is not exciting enough.
Plus you get to see (if you wish) the ‘ordinary people’ up close in various TV soaps. Some of which have ended because after plane crashes, fires and murders (all to make ordinary life exciting) they have become unbelievable. Those that soldier on seem to be more like sermons, with minorities prevalent and an underlying moral lesson about diversity etc.
Everyday existence is not the feedstock for literary culture that it once was.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

You’re not allowed to get a novel published if you’re a white man.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago

Indeed. Perhaps we should hope for a contemporary novel from Titiana McGrath?

tom j
tom j
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Yes. She might say pompous things like ““a strong moral compass hasn’t been fashionable for the past 75 years”, rather than writing a novel which inspires, informs, awakens the conscience of the reader.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
2 years ago

A few points. First of all, good article. More please Unherd. However, I disagree with several of the conclusions the author has come to. The head of the article says that modern Britain is a country of mass-strikes, a cost of living crisis and political turmoil. I will agree with political turmoil but who was talking about strikes until March/April this year other than academics and teachers who were on about it even when I was an undergraduate 12 years ago. When ordinary people look back on the last 10 years they are far more likely to note the London Olympics or the success of the England football team at the last 2 tournaments than the strikes or cost of living which has only affected them for the last few months.
Lack of working-class talent? Less than in the 19th Century? Come on. I would say it is the other way round. The more that the middle class has become sympathetic to the working class while simultaneously cutting themselves off from them through thought bubbles and postcode lotteries it has left them with a romanticised view of people who they see as alien to themselves. This has been compounded by those same working class people making their voices heard through things like Brexit and the (perhaps temporary) destruction of the Red Wall which has been viewed by many middle class Labour voters as akin to voting for the far-right. Remember when the BNP got a few votes in local elections? They were voted out in about 5 minutes. Meanwhile across the channel Le Pen and AFD keep up a worryingly consistent march towards power which barely gets a mention over here.
I think the author is looking for state of the nation reflections in the wrong places. Already mentioned in the comments has been the move of good writers to TV (The Office and Peep Show spring to mind). However, I think the best, longest-running show for this is a BBC radio 4 comedy Clare in the Community. This picks up a lot of contemporary issues from 2004-2019 and I would highly recommend this to the author as I think she is looking for a po-faced reading of the current state of Britain. I am a big fan of Trollope and his books have loads of comedy in them so why not have a look at this genre?

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

An age of mass strikes? Really? I must have missed that news.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago

The lives of the inhabitants of one road in London — from Polish builders to Senegalese footballers and rich Bankers — are fastidiously explored, and a true portrait of Britain in the 21st century emerges.”
Er, a true portrait of Londonï»żï»ż in the 21st Century possibly. We don’t have many Senegalese footballers and rich Bankers in my part of the West Midlands. And only the odd Polish builder.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  David Harris

Do remember that for many (most?) published writers London IS Britain, all the rest is just a stagnant quagmire that surrounds it.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

We live everyday reality? Why on earth should we want to read fiction about it?
Either literature is sui generis with its own subject matter (the problematically existential nature of human life) and justification in aesthetic terms, or it turns into mere historico-sociological maunderings by people with an axe to grind, and this is shown by the fact that now literature is by and large the working out of autobiographical theoretical, or political, positions in the service of ’causes’, which themselves abruptly erupt into fashion and as quickly disappear (who now who read them at the time would want to tackle again the turgid avalanche of ‘gay lifestyle’ novels reviewed by the Guardian thirty or so years ago?) If it is not these then it is middlebrow stuff that raises no questions and provides no answers, like detective novels.
Why should literature attempt ‘modern history’ (strictly an impossibility) when the particular choice of supposedly relevant elements of ‘the modern’ is open to question? Far better to read a proper history after a suitable lapse of time. History is our way of killing the past stone dead, so it ceases to cast a malign spell on our present.
Nabokov pointed out that Dickens did not write ‘realistic’ novels, but ‘black and white nightmares’ (even though they had comic elements). This is largely true of every great writer.

Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
2 years ago

There is a desperate need for novelists to reflect our life and times, and it is often in the midst of crises and depression that some of the greatest work is seeded – Steinbeck the Great Depression or Hemmingway the First World War. In Britain, we are living through similarly turbulent times – the civil war over Brexit, the Covid crisis and the subseqeunt energy price shock. These events are truly seismic in the context of the tranquil 1990s and early 2000s. Reflecting our life and times means passing quickly over the ‘fluff’ of celebrity culture such as football World Cups, Will Carling, and Love Island. While these matter to people, they do not figure at all their life stories. The day to day battles to put food on the table and secure a fulfilling life for themselves and their families are the issues that really matter to them. Amidst the constant transitory buzz of 24-hour news and Twitter comment, sensitive novelists are needed more than ever to give form to the roller-coaster that is contemporary life.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Langridge
Paul Pullis
Paul Pullis
2 years ago

This article lost any possible authority from the first sentence. It’s simply not correct that the bestseller charts are usually dominated by parish murder mysteries or John Grisham thrillers, or by “historical fiction from every age other than our own” (which makes no sense). Nor are we living in an age of mass strikes. Nor are there fewer working class voices than a hundred or two hundred years ago. Rather than bemoaning the perceived lack of contemporary novels examining the problems in society, why doesn’t Francesca Peacock write one? Or, failing that, read one. There are many contemporary novels, mostly under the crime fiction banner, which forensically examine society’s failings.

Alison Doig
Alison Doig
2 years ago

For a portrayal of modern Britain , with thinly veiled pictures of contemporary politicians, try Mick Herron.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

We’re living a reality Aldous Huxley would recognize. It’s impossible to avoid reading about it.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago

I would have thought that Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting deserves a mention.
That was contemporary and (almost too) real!

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

A practical reason for writing about the not-too-recent past is that it can give you a 20 or 30 year timescale for your plot.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

Did the article have to be that long to make its point?