Archive for the ‘england’ Category
It’s very difficult for writers to get on television in America.
Due to the BBC, it’s relatively easy for writers to get on television in the UK.
Thesis: these facts, and the pressures and opportunities that come or don’t come with them, have a lot to do with the ‘shapes’ of intellectual culture in the two places. Whereas in the USA, culture seems for the most part divided between something that can be emblematised by the yipping commentary on a NASCAR race on the one hand and on the other a graduate seminar in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, the culture in the UK can start to feel like just a a drawn-out closing monologue, set in a rustic pub, after the presenter has taken us on a wellies-on walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall.
One of the strangest things about England is that, despite the fact that its the birthplace and ancestral home of the political form that we identify with the interests of the middle class, it has lacked, for a good long while, a proper bourgeoisie. I mean to say, specifically in this case, that it lacks a class that thinks properly bourgeois thoughts, the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption.
It’s topcoats and overalls, socio-psychologically speaking, all the way down.
Of course as there’s a deep and complex relationship between bourgeois subjectivity and the novel form (no surprise, really, there – this is not new, neither in its historicity nor its formal immanence), so it really is no wonder that, well, the English have under-performed on this front over the past hundred years or so, with few exceptions.
Bourgeois subjectivity. That sounds awful doesn’t it? I think what I mean, to be a little more serious than I have been is, yes, bourgeois subjectivity but more specifically a sense of the personal contingency of class, that class-position can change – and, in particular, can change for reasons that are both your doing and definitely not your doing. I want to eat this or fuck this or write this but if I do I might fall… or maybe rise. Rigidity of social forms (and I’m not so much making an argument about reliative social mobility so much as relative perceived social mobility) is incompatible with the type of subjectivity I am trying to describe. The sense that things can change breeds hope and fear, mystification and ambition, false consciousness, interiority, “narcissism,” and an ambiguously-important sense that all of this is just a show, unreal.
I am amazed at how deeply the English believe in the reality of class. Trust me, this is both a bad and good thing. Americans tend to live in a fantasy of mobility and egalitarian meritocracy, yes, but the English seem to believe, down deep, that they are actually better or worse than other people, like for real, down deep, because of the conditions of their birth.
So, here begins a list of reasons why, for the last 100 years, the wholly-formed denizens of this nation*, with the sole exception of Virginia Woolf, and despite market-dominance for the two centuries before 1900, haven’t been able to write truly persuasive prose fiction, that is to say novels persuasive enough to stay on the world’s shelf and reread, well, willingly. I’ll have more reasons for you very soon.
Obviously, of course all this presumes (and perhaps indicts, though obviously I have mixed feelings about this) the fact that the novel is a bourgeois form. I think it’s also fairly obvious that it is, even though the wonderful thing about genres and forms are that they are reappropriable, redeployable, can be detourned and all the rest. But there are different ways of failing to make the cut. And it’s also interesting to think that the English once possessed a bourgeois sensibility (one is almost tempted to say a modern sensibility, in a longview sort of way), and then somehow lost it.
But let’s not, for now, have an argument about the politics of the form. Let’s just figure out why the English can’t write them and go from there. Americans can, South Africans can, Australians and Canadians can, the Irish can, but Brits – keep calm and carry on, I guess.
* Obviously it’s a bit weird to exclude non-ethnically English writers. In this case, since they have access to a different set of ideological matrices though, I think it’s fair. Go look at the Booker List. Colonials, colonials, recent arrivals, and Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? We all might have a novel or two that we’ve liked from this place, sure, but really, I think you know what I mean. Someone will say Ballard, inevitably, but seriously, something’s gone wrong in the land of Defoe and Fielding, Austen and Eliot, Dickens and Woolf.
(There, less narcissistic… You all were right… This feels much better…. But as you might imagine, this is going to end-around toward “narcissism,” eventually… And fuck, I screwed up the elision in the title first time around. The English can’t write novels, but sons of Anglo-Canada can’t write in French, it’s still true…)