Who wears the Crown?

After reading a spate of fairly disappointing British novels, I decided to venture further afield. Where better place to start than America, that vast and undeniably fertile land of dreams. At first I was sceptical. I’d read Hemingway and Faulkner but doubted their modern counterparts would have the same impact. Then I chanced upon Philip Roth.

The cover blurb for the Human Stain declared ‘The work of a genius at full throttle.’ Could a mere mortal live up to such lavish praise? I started the book with some reservation, wading through complex narrative passages, until my eyes crossed and I turned out the light. Then, some forty or fifty pages in, I noted a subtle change in the thermal temperature. The thing began to come alive. I loved the furious energy, the language, the relentless pushing at boundaries. I finished the book with a sense of awe. The ending is stunning, a powerful and haunting image that stays with you long after you’ve left the room. Philip Roth writes with a poised and incisive wit, illuminating dark corners of the human condition with a surgeon’s scalpel. This approach takes courage. The literary equivalent of deep sea diving, when most of us are merely skimming the surface.

Enter Jonathan Franzen. I’d heard so much about his work that I had to bypass my initial scepticism and find out what all the fuss was about. The Corrections is a big book – over 600 pages – a considerable investment in terms of time and energy. But like Roth, Franzen delivers the goods on every page. The observations on family life are brilliantly drawn. The humour is less acerbic than Roth’s, but equally as effective.

The jacket blurb for The Corrections contains, among other things, a quote from Jeremy Treglowen of the Financial Times. He makes the observation that no British novelist is writing at this pitch. I wondered why this is. Why is America producing writers of such depth and insight? And why is Britain being left behind? One of the criticisms in recent years has been the proliferation of Creative Writing courses throughout the country, a kind of finishing school for potential novelists. Detractors claim they are too formulaic and restrict the development of individual style. Then there’s the repressive cloud of political correctness we all live under. When, as a nation, we’re brow-beaten into ordering a ‘Plough-persons’ lunch, to avoid offending those poor souls who find the historic ‘Ploughmans’ unpalatable,  the time has come to make a stand.

The hardest thing for a writer to do is to tell the truth. Not the kind researched on Wikipedia but the truth we spend our lives avoiding. To attempt such a thing in a climate of fear and misunderstanding is disabling, and yet countless writers down through the ages have produced seminal works under such conditions. Great fiction entertains and illuminates, shining a light on all aspects of human experience, no matter how perverse or seemingly distasteful. Sure, not everybody reads to be force-fed their afflictions on a daily basis, but we can all benefit from a quick glance in the mirror now and then.

Writers like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen encourage us to see ourselves as we are – vulnerable, insensitive and deluded, but always striving heroically to overcome our human frailties.

I shall now climb down from my soap box and retire for the evening. Thank you for listening …

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