Paul Anderson, review of A Vain Conceit by D J Taylor (Bloomsbury, £4.99), Tribune, 13 October 1989

D J Taylor believes that British fiction is in a bad way. The big names — Margaret Drabble, Kingsley Amis, John. Fowles, Iris Murdoch — write books that ‘ fail to connect with the realities of our society. Their reputations are sustained by a literary establishment of obsequious, lazy, middlebrow, xenophobic, philistine publishers, reviewers and reviews editors. Meanwhile, iconoclastic, politically committed writers are ignored.

There’s some truth in this thesis. Many of the big names of British fiction do produce tedious, cliched, polite, petty-bourgeois drivel. Most Fleet Street reviewers are insufferably servile. Coteries abound.

The problem is that there are enough exceptions to the rules for Taylor’s argument to appear foolish. Many of Taylor’s favoured authors — Martin Amis, Kazuro Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Graham Swift — might be considered dangerously subversive by their stuffy elders, but they are hardly outsiders. All get serious money out of writing.

Nevertheless, in the course of his polemic, Taylor scores several direct hits. His withering critiques of Drabble and Amis senior are both amusing and apposite, and his account of the business of reviewing is, for the most part, depressingly accurate (though the nepotism is inexplicably underplayed). Taylor is suitably irreverent about the impact of structuralism and post-structuralism on both critics and novelists, and he does a wonderful demolition job on the populist anti-intellectual snobbery so widespread in Britain.

On the other hand, Taylor can’t resist the unsubstantiated assertion. In particular, he makes much of “the futility of thinking that you can satisfactorily represent in fiction the complexities of life in modern Britain”; “writers have lost the ability to describe and define the society of which they are a part”; “any attempt at the panorama effect is bound to fetch up as a queerly narrow perspective”. Really? And, if so, why?

Taylor also has little to say about the implications of the takeover of British publishing by conglomerates, and hardly mentions the growing tendency of publishers to concentrate advertising budgets solely on would-be best-sellers. Yet these changes in the publishing industry are crucially important reasons for the stagnation and exclusiveness that Taylor so deplores. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has missed a golden opportunity to blow the gaff.

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