Friday, 2 January 2009

The Observer's literary map of Britain: Includes me! Part 2

These were the handful of things that struck me on reading Kate Kellaway's very interesting piece:
1. KK describes the general perception of the "Hampstead novel" as “a middle-class morality novel - probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep.” Yes, that was my prejudice too. The thing is, a fair bit of my forthcoming second novel is set in Hampstead. Will I get away with saying it's an in-joke?
2. KK writes, “(A)lthough British novelists now spread their nets more widely, there is still a paucity of state-of-the-nation novelists, writers able to move freely across the map and get an aerial view. Hanif Kureishi puts it like this: "Dickens had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary. No writer has that now." I recognise the condition Hanif K is lamenting but I don't agree with the general prognosis. It may be that fewer writers have Dickens' ambitions and/or interests, and that fewer readers want to be bothered with big Dickensian novels, so affecting the supply of same. But any good writer has what Norman Mailer called 'the power to inhabit men's minds', and women's minds too. I don't for one minute rate myself up in the big league writing-wise, but I know that, were I so inclined, I would have the power to get into Jacqui Smith's head, or Karen Matthews', say, without too much fuss.
3. KK asserts that P.D. James has the best policy on the liberties a novelist must take with place, per this prefacing quote from Devices and Desires: "This story is set on an imaginary headland on the north-east coast of Norfolk. Lovers of this remote and fascinating part of East Anglia will place it between Cromer and Great Yarmouth but they must not expect to recognise its topography nor to find Larksoken nuclear power station, Lydsett village or Larksoken Mill. Other names are genuine, but this is merely the novelist's cunning device to add authenticity to fictitious characters and events." Yes, I agree entirely, as KK knows. I remember her enthusiasm when I quoted this very same passage to her on the telephone. And the 'Author's Note' at the front of Crusaders is a homage to the wisdom in these matters of Baroness James of Holland Park.
4. KK writes, “(T)here are hardly any novelists living in NW3 any more - the place is indecently expensive. In that sense, Crouch End – where mum’s lit flourishes and where many novelists now live - might be the place to watch." This, like #1 above, makes me feel uneasy, albeit for a slightly different reason...

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