Can there be writers who hold greater court than others and whose names are spoken with weight and favour? Not the obligatory school curriculum Shakespeare or the writers who epitomise a century – Milton, Dickens, Woolf, but today. In this world where writing is both an expression of creativity and a multi-billion industry of publishing, editing, distribution, book selling, criticism, advertising and marketing, are there those who occupy a privileged niche at the top?
In her article revealingly titled “A generation of undervalued writers”, Amanda Craig certainly thinks so. She writes how many of her peers who graduated in the 1980s shade of Thatcher, struggled to project their voices above the quartet of Amis, McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie. Above recession and other younger writers, she believes that these four men and the reverence surrounding them was the biggest hurdle of all to overcome.
Robert McCrum, previous literary editor of The Observer for over ten years and former editor-in-chief of Faber, responds to Craig’s article in Guardian Culture. His reply acknowledges that these four have indeed found a privileged place within literary spheres but that this position has neither hindered other writers nor created the cloud of untouchable hierarchy as claimed by Craig.
As figures, they seem to epitomise a school of literati hierarchy and separation, a world of intellect, academia, masculinity and middle-class exclusivity. Perhaps it is this where Craig finds such exception. The photograph that accompanies McCrum’s article was perhaps not the best choice – an awards ceremony where Rushdie has a drunken arm around Amis, both wear dinner suits and smug bleary expressions. McCrum’s article triggers a memory and I recall reading an article by Jeanette Winterson where she describes Amis, Rushdie and McEwan turning their backs to ignore her at a party, for being a woman and for not being one of them.
These four men have come to symbolise a certain type of writing – intelligent, engaged and observant. Their work manages to straddle commercial success and a style and sense that is connected and alert. It is equally true that some interpret their work as arrogant, supercilious and self-involved.
So to some degree I understand Craig’s point though her article is undermined by a one-sided and narrow view that speaks with bitter undertones of feminism. To venerate these men as representations of modern writing is narrow minded but to dismiss their work and influence for the same reason is equally as limited.
There have been many others who prove to be figures of modern writing, finding popularity and success whilst maintaining creative integrity. Hilary Mantel, Hanif Kureishi, Anne Enright and Yann Martel. David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver and Zadie Smith. Morrison, Atwood and Proulx.
The literary top ten is not as dominated by the masculine hegemony as Craig claims.
Personally, I have had a schizophrenic lurch from utter hatred of an A-Level Ian McEwan disaster to a burgeoning love affair with his words, an admiration of Barnes’s essays, and a current mission through Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, whose behaviour towards Bridget Jones I don’t think I have ever quite forgiven.
I almost write “I am ashamed to say I have never read Amis”, before I scowl at the screen and press the delete key.
Let’s start again.
I have never read Amis and perhaps one day I will.
For the moment, however, I have others on my bookshelf that I have a greater wish to explore and it angers me that there is an expectation to have read certain names. Why should there be a list of those authors we must tackle or we otherwise become reduced to under-cultured beings?
If a literature degree has taught me anything, there are words and worlds wider and much more beautiful than the prescribed and expected.
Whatever personal opinion people may have of McEwan or Rushdie’s writing, the question that comes to my mind is that perhaps we are meant to have literary figures established by the recognised cultural discourse. By having these names we can set a barometer of the age and as McCrum writes, “really good writers are not troubled by brilliant contemporaries”; think of Shakespeare and Marlow, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Woolf and Mansfield. “Strong talents are galvanised by rival artists not crushed by them”.
Once again, we hear those names. Literary figures should be seen as representations and reference points. They shouldn’t squash or intimidate us, but are people to position ourselves against from which to work. The literary establishment may have decided that these four are Great Men of Literature who have Something To Say About Society, State of the Man and the World Today, grandfathers of contemporary British fiction and symptomatic of a certain style, tradition and seniority.
So let’s stop complaining and recognise that their legacy opens new opportunity. Their heritage is the exact reason why all those little publications and independent literary events are so important, allowing unheard voices to sing. The wealth of online blog writing, independent zines and creative writing schools is crucial and must be celebrated. Having worked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I have watched members of the public queue around that sunshine block of muddy Charlotte Square to see Audrey Niffenegger, Iain Banks and Seamus Heaney. And I have also seated audiences for little known emerging authors, poets and graphic comic writers. I think of my friend editing a northern magazine called Blank Media Collective and that same friend with whom I am going to the hills next week to write.
Rather than revering these four men or dismissing their hegemony, we need to view them with more of a grounded perspective: their influence allows publishers to invest in emerging new writers and in a hundred years their names will be remembered – but equally so will many others’.
Overly fixating upon this quartet will only diminish inspiration. Dismissing them blinkers clarity and vision. Recognise the McEwan / Rushdie / Amis / Barnes old boys club but understand that theirs are by no means the only voices to represent the thought, creativity and variety of modern writing.