No wonder Scarlett looks so sad. Contemporary novelists are so busy writing about the past, they're neglecting the times they live in. It's time to get real, argues Amanda Craig
When the star of The Wire,Dominic West,recently attacked Cranford- style adaptations of classic English novels by the BBC on its Today programme earlier this month, there was a collective sigh of relief. Not everyone is going to find The Wire as easy to watch as Cranford, and yet - how bored we are with bonnets and bustles!
This nostalgia-fest, which would be met with scornful laughter in art, or architecture, or theatre, is also rampant in literature. My latest novel is being published in the same month as AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. All of these are very fine writers, and all, it so happens, have written period novels. Anyone who is interested in Tudor England, in Victorian England or in post-War England will probably be buying them, and all are pretty much guaranteed places on the bestseller charts and prize shortlists. Whereas I have set out to take the DNA of a Victorian novel - its spirit of realism, its strong plot, its cast of characters who are not passively shaped by circumstances but who rise to challenges or escape them - to write a big London novel about immigrants, legal and illegal, that is so up-to-the minute that journalists are asking me, a little suspiciously, how I knew the crash was coming.
There are very few literary novelists writing ambitious, realist novels about the present, because few novelists appear to think there is anything remarkable about it. When Tom Wolfe wrote his seminal essay, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, in 1989, the points he made were so pertinent that you might have expected a renaissance of Victorian narrative values on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet his complaint that "young people with serious literary ambition were no longer interested in the metropolis or any other big, rich slice of contemporary life" met with outrage from critics and indifference from authors - though some US novelists, from Philip Roth to Jane Smiley, did eventually rise to the trumpet- blast, if not, perhaps, in the way he demanded. Wolfe pointed out that what was lacking from contemporary fiction was the kind of reporting that great Victorian novelists such as Dickens and Zola engaged in, and it was this that he attempted, very successfully, when writing Bonfire of the Vanities.
Indeed, writing about the present is the hardest thing of all to do. You might think it easy because there are so many good writers on newspapers and magazines around, and at its best - in the work, say, of the late Studs Terkel - journalism approaches what fiction can do to illuminate the human condition. Yet to seize the present moment is like trying to capture the moment when a fried egg turns from liquid into solid, as in Velazquez's painting, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. What is it now that will have resonance in 50 or 100 years time? What will there be to bring our times to life for the future reader? What are we most concerned about, in the way that Dickens was concerned with education, Charlotte Bronte with the position of governesses or Tolstoy with the structure of Russian society? A good contemporary novel is a perfect time-capsule that will transport its reader a hundred years hence into the preoccupations, tastes, opinions and spirit of the moment that it was written. Yet such novels - unless they are delivered to us from the developing world - are rare. What has remained consistently respectable and desirable are novels set in the past.
Underlying the thirst for historical novels is perhaps a collective feeling that literary fiction and imagination are not enough in themselves to make a novel worth reading - there must be an element of self-education, too. So you're not losing yourself in an imagined world, you're learning about Holbein or Vermeer. …