Culture Wars: Piddling the books
After the row over this year's Orange Prize shortlist, Jennie Bristow asks why British women's fiction is such a sensitive subject
Lola Young, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University and chair of the panel of judges for this year's Orange Prize, sparked a media furore in May, when she apparently labelled contemporary British women's fiction 'piddling' and 'parochial'. She claims she was misquoted: 'the word "piddling" is very derogatory. It's not a Lola Young word.' And whatever she did say, she is bemused as to why it made the headlines. 'I think that couplet made really good copy', she sighs.
Evidently so. But that cannot explain why the ensuing row about the merits and failings of British women novelists brought commentators, novelists and critics from Elaine Showalter and Julie Burchill to Helen Dunmore and David Lodge into the fray. After all, it was not as though Professor Young was talking about all fiction - or even about literature. She is quoted in the Daily Telegraph as bemoaning the 'cult of big advances going to photogenic young women to write about their own lives and who they had to dinner, as if that is all there is to life...because it's fashionable to write these sorts of novels'. The 'sorts of novels' she is talking about - Ralph's Party, Come Together and the numerous other versions of Bridget Jones's Diary fighting for space on the bookshop shelves - are in a different league entirely to those books discussed as literature, as serious contenders for literary prizes. Or are they?
What the Orange Prize row brought out was the literary establishment's increasing inability to argue the difference between contemporary literature and popular pap. When Radio 4's Today programme brought on the heavyweight Beryl Bainbridge for a head-to-head with the young featherweight Freya North about the state of British women's fiction, you got a sense of how much this distinction has collapsed.
Attacking photogenic young women authors and their publishers has become quite fashionable, particularly among older generations of wannabe novelists. But outside this group, why bother? The 'Bridget Jones' books are to middle youth professionals what Mills & Boon once were to housewives. A friend of mine described Freya North's books as 'well-written crap': easy, compelling bus and tube reading that people like to buy and publishers want to publish. Publishers are not literary critics but businesses out to cash in on a successful formula. As for the authors 'selling out': not everybody aspires to be James Joyce. (And would you ever think of reading Ulysses on the beach?)
The problem is not that popular fiction exists, but that it tends to be discussed in the same breath as literature. In academia and elsewhere, literary judgements of books have been steadily eroded, as books are increasingly judged on the basis of how they reflect the cultural identity of the author. And just because popular fiction says something about society as it is today, from the petty preoccupations reflected in the characters to the taste of the book-buying public, it is seen to represent British identity equally as well as the next Great Book.
'Universality has become a dirty word', says Lola Young. 'People are rightly wary of it. Whether you can make a case for it - the jury is still out on that.' This pretty much sums up the shift in literary criticism. While there have always been disputes about which pieces of work were 'great literature', there was some agreement that literature contained some universal quality that meant it could connect with people through time and place, crossing national and gender boundaries. Jane Austen did not just tell stories about posh English girls, their families and lovers - her novels go way beyond the confines of the plot. Professor Young says that 'claiming universal truths and values often means ignoring cultural difference'. But the concept of universality did give a sense of a common standard by which literature could be judged - a representation of the human condition, in whatever form that took.
Now, the growing sensitivity to the 'discriminatory' nature of universality has led to a situation where the judgement of literature has become totally fragmented. Universities run courses on women's fiction, African-American fiction, non-British fiction, and so on, picking up whatever cultural identity happens to be in vogue. This does not necessarily mean that they are bad books; it does mean that their position in the syllabus is justified not by the simple judgement that this is 'literature', but by the identity expressed by the author.
The obsession with writers' 'identities' means that, all too often, novels cease to be judged as literature and are perceived almost as a political statement on the society that produced them. The popular notion within academia that 'reading widely' means reading books from as many parts of the world as possible implies that literature is often deemed incapable of transgressing the immediate boundaries of time and place. Novelists come to be seen as cultural ambassadors, where their work simply represents their corner of the world at the present moment. Whether the author is a middle-class English girl writing about boyfriends or an African-American woman writing about slavery, their books are seen as equally valid expressions of their identity - and as equally valid as any past or present literary classic.
This narrow, uncritical view of literature explains how Lisa Jewell's first novel Ralph's Party comes to be compared to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And let's face it, fluffy young women give a more palatable face to British cultural identity than the dead white males (and females) in the literary canon. Dead authors, however brilliant their books, have an embarrassing tendency towards misogyny, racial stereotyping and an adherence to Rule Britannia. Fluffy young women, by contrast, write safe, self-deprecating, up-to-date books that are thoroughly politically correct - to the point that in Freya North's Polly, the lust-driven spontaneous sex scene between the protagonist and her American trainer in a swimming pool ends with him pulling a condom out of the water, knotted at the top.
It's all very nice, and very New Britain. But literature it ain't.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999