Saturday, December 04, 2010

Is There a Literary Boys' Club?

An amusing and/or depressing spat last week between Robert McCrum and novelist Amanda Craig. The trigger was a piece by Craig on the website of the excellent Fiction Uncovered (which I really should have blogged about and would have done so had I not been so tied up with promoting my latest publication, and you probably already know about it but if not then I shall trust you to jump on the link and speed on over there and find out about a Really Good Thing.)

Anyway, one wonders what McCrum thinks about Fiction Uncovered - an Arts-Council aided idea to seek out and promote good writers who haven't so far received the attention they deserve - since his objection to Craig's article seems out of all proportion, and indeed he seems wilfully to misinterpret her. Craig's argument is that none of her own generation has received the kind of acclaim that some in the generations either side of it have done. Here's the central paragraph in which she makes it:
Those younger than us, such as Sarah Waters, Maggie O’Farrell, Zadie Smith, Philip Hensher and Monica Ali, rose to prominence earlier and faster, fanned by national prosperity; my generation has had a long struggle to be seen at all. We have worked in the shadow of the Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation, and the recession of the 1980s, and by the time we published, usually in our mid-thirties, a second wave of younger talent had risen up and overtaken us.
Craig's chief point here is that the generations of writers either side of her avoided the recession which hit the generation to which she belongs, and there is an implied premise that national prosperity is good for writers' reputations and recession isn't. It's true that she also refers to the 'shadow' of the 'Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation' as an impediment, and it's this which McCrum jumps on, and here's how he interprets it:
Craig's complaint ... is that Amis et al have somehow prevented a generation of writers from getting their due recognition... If this boys' club had not sucked all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere, says Craig – with no real evidence for her assertion – we would now speak of Chambers, Jensen etc in the same breath as ...
Whoa...! That's a whole load of extrapolation from one brief phrase. Maybe, since Craig goes on to point out that it is above all the women of her generation who have been most overlooked, she is implying the existence of a 'boys' club', but she accuses Amis, McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie themselves of nothing (where's the evidence for that?). Now McCrum, one of those with the power to overlook or champion talents and provide or deny the oxygen of newspaper publicity, is of course the great champion of this quartet, and his reaction seems knee-jerk enough to imply a sorely hit nerve.

He even gets insulting:
Really good writers are not troubled by brilliant contemporaries [See, Craig, he seems to be saying, if you were any good you wouldn't be moaning]... Strong talents are galvanised by rival artists not crushed by them. Or they go their own way, making their own good fortune. They are not cowed by top dogs.
Ah, those 'top dogs'! So there are top dogs - those who have somehow managed to 'suck all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere' in spite of there being other strong talents! In resorting to the language of elitism, McCrum only brings down on himself the very suspicions he's so anxious to avoid. He goes on to object 'that there are also (among reviewers) many experts in tall-poppy syndrome, knives poised'. Tall poppies too, eh - those who have gained all the nutrients/cash and consequent attention? (Though the only example of tall-poppy-slashing he comes up with is Tibor Fischer's hatchet job on Amis's Yellow Dog.)

'If Craig and her disappointed contemporaries have had such a hard time,' he asks with a tone that smacks shockingly of playground in-crowds, 'why has it been (apparently) so easy for Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Philip Hensher? Could it be that these literary arrivistes are, er, actually better?' but concludes in the very language of the pompous gentleman's club he'd like to disprove: 'Maybe posterity will be kinder to Ms Craig and her contemporaries. For the moment, the jury is still out. Harsh, but true.'



Dan Holloway said...

Ooh, yes, I had to bit my tongue painfully whilst commenting on McCrum's preposterous piece and I still spat feathers. The problem was he seemed, as you say, wilfully tomiss the point again and again. And the point is that there are some writers (I'd add Ishiguro) who , whatever they write, will find their way to the features page. There will always be a debate about the merit of "the latest McEwan" and people will talk about whether or not Amis' latest is on the Booker shortlist, and for most writers that's just not the case. Even the fact that we have this debate shows there is an issue. There are so few column inches available to culture, and so many of those are taken up in relation to this tiny group, it's a terrible shame


This is rife in Ireland too - a top few of lauded writers. Usually male. Heaney, J O'Connor, Colm Tóibín, W Trevor. It's like no one else exists!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, your comment on the Guardian blog was a miracle of reason - and you got to heart of it all in concluding that the whole thing was about names (ie celebrity) rather than literature.

Nuala, this is interesting. These are the four Irish writers who are lauded in England, and it has always seemed to me that they are somewhat more 'English', both linguistically and in sensibility, than other Irish writers - Trevor and Toibin especially. Could it be that success in England is the key here - reflected back across the water...? ie these guys are marching to the same drum as McEwans etc?

Sue Guiney said...

And it's not just writers who bemoan the fact that it is always the same writers one hears about. I know plenty of voracious readers who say that it's always the same writers on sale in bookshops and they get bored. They ask where's everyone else? Where indeed? Ultimately, you have to believe that by limiting the availability and recognition of writers, not only are other writers themselves suffering, but so are readers and the entire industry. As you say...."sheesh."

Elizabeth Baines said...

Important point, Sue. I have heard complaints from readers, too.

Dan Holloway said...

Thank you!
WRW, it's interesting you say that. I have several Irish writer friends who feel the situation there is even worse than it is in England