Far from being an exhausted art form, as V S Naipaul and others have argued, the novel is in robust health when compared with theatre, film or painting.
"Every American writer," Martin Amis once wrote, "is generally trying to write a novel called 'USA'." To read American fiction, at the end of the American century, to read recent works such as Don DeLillo's Underworld, Philip Roth's American Pastoral or John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, is to encounter writers endlessly engaged in remaking the contemporary world in language. To read these writers is to realise, too, that the English language novel stuffed its belongings into a rucksack some time during the imperial twilight of the British nation, hopped on a boat and found a home among the teeming immigrant ghettos of the new world--a world offering a range and density of social experience once available only to the inhabitants of late 19th-century London.
So if, as Amis has also argued, the history of the 20th-century novel is the history of the American novel, what actually became of the English novel? After all, the British literary heritage is the richest in the world. For a start, most British writers stopped trying to write The Novel, and merely wrote novels instead, good and bad. As the nation repositioned itself as a medium-sized, post-imperial consumer society, so there was a corresponding scaling down of ambition among novelists. There were notable attempts to write a novel called "Great Britain" -- Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End, H G Wells's Tono-Bungay, Ian McEwan's A Child in Time, Amis's London Fields, Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! -- but, on the whole, the British century produced few, if any, canonical masterpieces to rival, say, Bleak House, Middlemarch, Tristram Shandy or the work of Jane Austen or the Brontes.
What we had instead were the great arresting works of modernism, by Conrad, Woolf and Lawrence; the proliferation of the emancipated female voice in the excellent work of, among others, Rosamund Lehmann, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Muriel Spark, Ivy Compton Burnett, Iris Murdoch and A S Byatt; the postwar professionalisation of writing and the emergence of the "career" writer; and then, finally, the long "aftermath" of the postmodernist period, when the very future of the novel itself was constantly being questioned by V S Naipaul, George Steiner and others.
What underpinned Naipaul's penetrating critique was the realisation that fiction, at its best, was about novelty -- about being novel, in the true sense of the word, about breaking with the past and about the search for new forms. Or, as Ezra Pound famously put it, about "Making it New". Today, after the great experiments of the modernist period and the ironic extremism of so much postmodern fiction, we are at the end of something. After Ulysses, there is...what? Well, there is the literal nonsense of Finnegans Wake. After Beckett, there is only silence. After Kafka, there is only the Kafkaesque. So at a time when the novel is, formally, most free to be whatever it wants, a certain kind of accepted form has paradoxically triumphed: what one might call the bourgeois novel, written in the third person, in which the narrator is omnisciently aware of all his or her characters' thoughts, plot and the make-believe are the engines of fiction and verisimilitude is prized. "Yet there was a time," Naipaul told me, "wh en fiction provided discoveries about the nature of society, about states, which gave those works of fiction a validity over and above the narrative element. I don't see reading as an act of drugging oneself with a narrative. But the best novels have already been written."
Is Naipaul right in his willed pessimism? Well, yes and no. Yes, because all novels are the product of their times; they cannot be read in isolation from the historical and ideological forces that shaped them. Reflecting on the history of …