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Book groups and the latest ‘it’ novel

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By Robert Eaglestone


I’ve never been to a book group (although I was once invited to a Dad’s ‘Listening to the Album of the Month with Beer’ club) but I’ve always been afraid that it would be a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, or worse, that – because I’m basically a teacher – it would turn me into the sort of terribly bossy know-it-all you don’t want drinking your nicely chilled wine. That said, I often get asked to recommend the current ‘it’ novel for book groups.

But one of the problems with contemporary fiction is just that there is so much written and published all the time that any book, however good, just seems like a drop in the ocean. There is no one ‘it’ book. So, instead, I’m going to sketch a pattern of what’s going on in contemporary fiction to provide a context for reading or choosing a book.

The first thing that’s going on at the moment in fiction is a sort of literary playfulness. The 60s and 70s were a heyday of ‘experimental fiction’ (B. S. Johnson wrote a novel on cards, so that you could shuffle it and read it in any order you chose) and many novels in the 80s and 90s were ‘postmodern’, playing games with sense, narration and the very idea of fiction itself. Lots of literary fiction today has, on the one hand, inherited and reused these traditions, but on the other, retreated from their (sometimes quite challenging) extremes. Once thought of as terribly inaccessible, these demanding literary techniques have been domesticated and used in the service of plot and narrative. For example, the British novelist David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas is made up of interlocking stories, one within the other. One of its main sources of inspiration is the ‘classic of postmodernism’ If on a winter’s night a traveller by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. But in Calvino’s novel, different stories follow each other and frustratingly, none of the stories are finished; there is no end. In contrast, in Mitchell’s novel the stories, while interrupted in turn, are finished making it both more satisfying, but perhaps less memorable.

Linked to this is a return not to the weird experimentalism of the 60s but to older traditions of modernism, to writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, where the form of the novel itself is a central part of its meaning. Ali Smith’s brilliant novel, The Accidental (2005), is of this sort. The narrative proceeds through the very different consciousnesses of the characters, shifting and playing games with the chronology. The styles change too: one part is written in questions and answers, another uses different styles of love poetry. But the playing with the text tells you as much about what is going on as the characters.

In contrast to this playfulness in fiction, and equally important, is what can be seen as a turn away from fiction to something more ‘real’. The American novelist and critic David Shields has described this as Reality Hunger and discusses writers and artists who are “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their works.” This is also happening in other art forms: ‘reality TV’, verbatim theater (in which the script is taken from government enquires, court cases and so on) and in fine art (where Tracey Emin, for example, takes her experiences as the artwork itself). In writing, one symptom of this is ‘popular history’. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher reads more like thriller than a history book, for example. And of course, after Hilary Mantel, there is a huge boom in good historical fiction, which — like your best history teacher — entertains but also seems to tell you about, say, the Tudors. But part of it also comes from writers like the W. G. Sebald and David Eggers. Sebald’s best work, The Rings of Saturn, describes a walking tour around Suffolk, and it’s unclear whether or not this is fact of fiction. Certainly, it’s full of bits of history, all of which circle around the (rather melancholy) themes of destruction and decay. In contrast to this European melancholy is the exuberance of the American writer David Eggers. His fiction mixes the real (his first book even included his friends’ phone numbers) with the ‘shaped’ and is packed with jokes and reflections. His later work has become more consciously political: What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng is by both Eggers (it’s called a novel) and a Sudanese ‘lost boy’ Valentino Achak Deng. It highlights and explains the terrible events in Sudan while making pointed comments about the USA; it’s still pretty exuberant, though.

Contemporary literary fiction, then, is made up by these two divergent trends – the more experimental, the more seeming ‘real’. They can be picked up in all sorts of fiction (even genre fiction: real life thrillers, for example) and even in non-fiction (who’d have thought that an account of financial mismanagement would be so gripping – but John Lanchester’s novelistic account of the credit crunch, Whoops!, really is). Perhaps these trends, and their blurring, is telling us something important about the world in which we live.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is Deputy Director (and formerly Director) of the Holocaust Research Centre. His research interests are in contemporary literature and literary theory, contemporary philosophy, and on Holocaust and genocide studies. He is the author of Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (OUP,  2013) and Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students (third revised edition) (Routledge, 2009). You can follow him on Twitter: @BobEaglestone.

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Image credits: David Mitchell by Mariusz Kubik (Attribution, GFDL), Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia Commons; Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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