I’ve recently resumed reading novels as a major activity, and I’ve had to face the fact that I know so few recent ones. I’m trying to find out why this is and what has happened to the novel in the last 100 years and whether there are still “great” novelists today.

It all started when I couldn’t enjoy D.H. Lawrence, so I never went beyond E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford, and although I have enjoyed some of Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, among others, they aren’t really novels of today, nor are they, to my mind, great novelists by 19th century standards.

One difficulty I face, unless I’m mistaken about it, is that there doesn’t seem to be a divide in modern novels corresponding to the divide in modern music between “classical” and “popular” idioms. I’ve tried Libby Purves and Katie fforde who seem to be the literary equivalent of Celine Dion. Is there anyone publishing today who’s as profound and absorbing as Scott, Turgenev and Conrad?

I devoured the classic French novelists in the 1980s – Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, etc., all in translation of course, as well as most of the British 19th century novelists, preferring Hardy to Lawrence.

There has definitely been a blurring of categories during the 20th century, and I welcome that development, though the literary canon, academically speaking, remains fairly secure up to the 1950s. After then it has become extremely fluid, and again, that is to be welcomed. I certainly don’t see it as a difficulty.

Not exactly of today, but I would cite Robertson Davies as being among the finest of novelists, and for different reasons, Terry Pratchett is worthy of serious attention, though is unlikely to receive it from those who mourn for the past. There’s plenty of good stuff to be read, and an awful lot of dross to wade through too. Now, though, we can do that for ourselves, instead of being told what has merit, and what hasn’t.

There is only one measure of a good novel of whatever age, of literary pretension or none. Does one devour it from cover to cover, or skip and dip into it, or simply discard it after the first few pages? I am with Somerset Maugham when he asserts that if one finds a book not enjoyable, whatever its reputation as a masterpiece or the favourable opinions of critics, one should put it down and not pick it up again. It was not original advice, of course: Montaigne and Samuel Johnson offered similar thoughts on reading.

I think Zadie Smith has it in her to write a great novel, and her On Beauty is pretty good, if not quite there yet.


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