THE PARADIGM British novel of 2002-03 is one that begins with reminiscences of Victorian childhood, then relocates the hero or heroine to China, Japan, India or a similarly exotic location, to become embroiled in a life of crime. The only thing the novelist will probably not be writing about is modern England.
These were the conclusions of a panel of commentators assembled by The Independent at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature yesterday to discuss the prevailing themes and obsessions of young modern writers - and to identify the young authors who hold the future of the British novel in their hands. The debate was led by Ian Jack, editor of Granta, the influential magazine of new writing, Kate Mosse, the novelist and founder of the Orange Prize, and Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent.
"Modern England suffers from a lack of ambition and description in novels," said Jack. "By contrast, we're up to our necks in modern Scotland and modern Ireland. Many writers are haring off to China and India. There's a burden of the literary past in England. Having 250 years of great fiction behind you can be a gift or a burden, a yoke you have to throw off. It weighs on the shoulders of the young." But, after years in the shadow of America, the British novel is experiencing a renaissance, with a slew of eclectic young writers whose work in the crime and fantasy genres should allow them a seat in the canon of 21st-century literature.
One reason for optimism, the panel agreed, was the waning in influence of such hyper-vivid stylists as Martin Amis and his peers. "There's a tree called the upas tree that blights everything in its shade," declared Jack. "I think the generation of Amis, Rushdie and McEwan did that. But a distance of 20 years is enough. Not so many young men are trying to be Martin Amis now."
Still, few young writers were disposed to explore modern England as a subject for epic fictional treatment. "Everybody's writing about Britain in the past and Britain in the future," said Tonkin. "Nobody wants to write about the present. It's only Americans who want to write a thumping great account of their period."
Other writers whose names earned honourable mentions included Andrew O'Hagan, Rachel Seiffert and Philip Hensher. "The future is in safe hands, as far as the writers are concerned," said Tonkin, "but I'm not so sure about the publishers. The first novelist will always be the darling of the marketing department for one season; but after that there are problems if you come up with novels that are quite different from the one that made your name. I think these are much worse than the problem of `Is there enough talent around?' I think there certainly is."
Mosse predicted the imminent decline of the post-Bridget Jones novel that has been clogging British bestseller lists for the past five years. "Personally I don't think Chick Lit novels will sell for that much longer," she said.
"There's something very artificial about the marketing of that, the fact that they all look the same, they're all Day-Glo. It's like buying a cheese and pickle sandwich every day. You know what you're getting with it, but it's not very exciting."
Asked to nominate one creative writer who would be regarded as most significantly important in 20 years' time, the panel chose: Claire Messud, author of The Hunters and The Last Life; Zadie Smith, author of the bestselling, recently televised White Teeth; Sarah Waters, whose Victorian-lesbian novel Tipping the Velvet has caused a mild scandal on BBC2, and whose third novel Fingersmith is strongly favoured to win the Booker Prize tomorrow; and David Mitchell, whose books Ghostwritten and Number9Dream are set in exotic locations in the Far East and the Pacific Rim.
The judges' deliberations came at the end of a week in which the literary world waited, fruitlessly, for an announcement that never came - the "long list" of writers chosen by Granta magazine as representing "the Best of Young British Novelists" in 2003. …