A few years back I sat on a train near Will Self, novelist, travelling like me, from London to Cardiff. Maybe he was unwell, but he made an extraordinary number of journeys from his seat to the toilet, to the restaurant car and up and down the carriage. A cynical observer might have said he was craving attention.
Now of course it is the novelist’s job to draw attention, but in a lecture on Tuesday, he bemoaned the death of the serious novel. In a case deliciously devoid of
evidence – what about book group popularity? Wattpad? Stats on literary novel sales? – we were told that the world of the ‘serious’ novel would become more and more rarified and minority. Mr Self’s supply side analysis means people like him will either have to teach creative writing (and let’s face it, in truth, it is those who can teach and earn oodles on You Tube) or do ordinary jobs, like most people.
It is the use of the description ‘serious’ novel that interests me. Conservative politician Ken Clark was on the radio last week talking about ‘serious’ politics, in contrast with what UKIP are about. He used this word several times when what he really meant was ‘establishment’ politics. The very entity that the public feel disillusioned with, and to which UKIP are such a threat. And there may well be an ‘establishment’ novel – written by members of a small, literary coterie who the broadsheets deem fit to pronounce on matters literary. Their broadsheet habitat may be well on the way to extinction and so may they…
Fortunately for the rest of us who want to produce novels and maybe get paid for it, there are writers around like Naomi Alderman. Not exactly non-establishment – last week she produced an edition of Woman’s Hour – Naomi’s won accolade for novels and short stories, written games and Dr Who tie-ins, and created a best-selling fitness app, Zombies Run. If you hear her speak at a conference, she is inspiring, accessible and conversational, and tells it like it is. She probably wouldn’t get described as ‘serious’, but she wants to tell her stories, and they reach us in deliciously different forms. She makes me think of Shakespeare and Dickens: out there, hoiking their stories to people in forms and places that they want them.
We are in a golden age of writing for TV, (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Scandi (and Welsh!) Noir, House Of Cards), of writing for online video, apps and virtual reality and of digital experimentation. There will be mass realization quite soon that great web content depends on great writing.
So if you’re feeling frustrated and excluded in your novel writing, why let being taken ‘seriously’ hold you back?