This newspaper's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, recently wrote that "fiction's failure to register the impact of popular music on the post-Elvis generations must rank as one of the strangest dog-that- didn't- bark stories in postwar writing". Be that as it may, the preponderance of novelists currently seeking to redress the balance is striking. Salman Rushdie's forthcoming book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, has been described by insiders as a rock epic partially inspired by U2; American writer Pagan Kennedy's new novel, The Exes, documents the rise of an alternative-rock band in Boston; and recent books by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Robert Newman have all featured protagonists with more than a passing interest in their favourite bands. Add to this the fact that Iain Banks recently co- wrote songs for a BBC Radio adaptation of his 1990 novel, Espedair Street, and you get a sense that pop and fiction are rubbing shoulders with renewed enthusiasm.
I say with "renewed" enthusiasm because that crossover has always been there. If you opt for the broadest definition of "popular music", you could argue that even the way Kerouac drew inspiration from bebop in On the Road fits the bill. You might also assert, as Alan Warner does, that the heady brew of sci-fi and hard rock featured in some of Michael Moorcock's Seventies novels never got the critical recognition it deserved. For Nick Hornby - whose own book, High Fidelity, is still regarded as one of the "pop novel" genre's milestones - the key work came later.
"I read Roddy Doyle's The Commitments when it came out, and it was a big deal for me," he says. "When I was growing up, popular culture was much more important to me than literary culture, so the idea that you could write about music that simply and directly, and still get serious reviews, was incredibly refreshing."
Moorcock and Doyle may have been amongst the trailblazers, but the unique and mutually distinctive ways in which Warner, Hornby and Kennedy have appropriated pop culture mark a further progression. In Morvern Callar, admittedly less music-fixated than High Fidelity or The Exes, Warner takes a more impressionistic approach. The compilation tapes that the book's eponymous heroine listens to on her Walkman allow the author to drop a whole litany of band names without the faintest hint of a clang. The sheer artistry of the book also makes a nonsense of claims that pop culture references have no place in the serious literary work.
"The music on Morvern's tapes is a way for her to maintain contact with her dead boyfriend," Warner explains. "She's using it to get by after his suicide, and also to remind her of things past." There's a stark passage where Morvern decapitates her boyfriend's body wearing tinted swimming goggles and noseclips, her Walkman plugs firmly Sellotaped into her ears as she listens to a specially prepared compilation. It's almost as though she's bandaging her senses.
Like Hornby's High Fidelity, Kennedy's The Exes uses its characters' pop and rock obsessions as an over-arching framework, while she explores the dynamics of their romantic and platonic relationships. The Exes are a band, and their moniker - the brainchild of guitarist Lilly - alludes to their line-up featuring two pairs of ex-lovers. They're an indie Fleetwood Mac.
While on one level, the book pays homage to the alternative scene in Allston, Boston, which Kennedy once immersed herself in, the former fanzine writer is quick to point out that there's more to the book than lip-gloss and sound checks: "I wanted to capture something that's going on socially, and not just in bands", she says. "The fact that most of us of a certain age now have a string of monogamous exes that we have to integrate into our lives is interesting, but I don't see anybody talking about it." She describes The Exes - which one critic dubbed "High Infidelity" - as "a perverse take on that issue". …