Rumours that the Novel is dying have by now come to resemble an established fact. What’s more, the people responsible for the decline of what is, to many, the clearest sign of a civilized culture, are none other than a population of easily-distracted proles whose “lack of patience and deep-thinking ability” means their [Read: Your] only interaction with anything even vaguely resembling culture is via prodding virtual fruit on crowded public transport.
To an extent this is true. The internet has meant that instant gratification is achievable far easier, for far more people, in far more ways than it ever has been, requiring less mental effort to “know stuff” and achieve the various ephemeral pleasures of our everyday lives. We know this. But one thing most high-brow journalists, senescent authors and desperate publishing houses have failed to realize is that they too share a fair share of the blame for the problem they are so worried about.
In 1958 W.H. Allen published Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Despite having been rejected several times, the book became its publisher’s first million best-seller, appealing to hundreds of thousands of people who had not attended university let alone studied, *gulp*, the Western Canon. What’s more, it was a British novel about the British working class which refused either to romanticize their individual daily plight or set them up as a group of funny-talking two-dimensional characters waiting to be blown over by the slightest authorial jab like some inflatable human punchbag which bounces back only to be knocked down again. The novel was so British that J. Arthur Rank (whose company, the Rank Organisation, owned a large chunk of the British film industry at the time) returned the film rights to the author because he felt the story would not translate to American audiences.
The protagonist, factory worker Arthur Seaton, is a blunt depiction of a man worn down by low pay and a distrust of politics, who is suffering from a burning ambition that has nowhere to go. “Once a rebel, always a rebel,” begins chapter fifteen, “You can’t help being one. […] And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ‘em it don’t pay to try to do you down”. British literature in 1950s was full of these characters, for better or worse, hence the popularity of the term ‘Angry Young Men’: unpopular with the writers caught in this journalistic net but popular with the journalists themselves sitting up onboard content with their easy catch.
Whether it was a junior university lecturer “hunch-shouldered from the weight of his chips” and feeling out of place in an academia apparently designed to keep his sort out (Lucky Jim, 1954), an auto-didact fed up at an “Edwardian brigade” who have been “plundering and fooling everybody for generations” (Look Back In Anger, 1956), or a young lad who feels the only way he can stand up against a callous governor working him to the bone for his own amusement is to refuse, as Bartleby did, to do his dirty work (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1959). The one book that captured the atmosphere of British literature at the time was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956), a detailed non-fictional study of outsider figures like Van Goethe, Nietzsche and Herman Hesse; a book which could easily have had included a few extra chapters about Wilson’s contemporaries.
Kenneth Alsop, in his study of the Angry Young Men (The Angry Decade, 1964), lists their characteristics as “irreverence, stridency, impatience with tradition, vigour, vulgarity, sulky resentment against the cultivated and a hard-boiled muscling-in on culture, […] self-pity, deliberate disengagement from politics, fascist ambitions, schizophrenia, rude dislike of anything phoney or fey, […] a general intellectual nihilism, honesty, a neurotic discontent and a defeated, reconciled acquiescence that is the last flimsy shelter against complete despondency”. Couldn’t the same things be said about the current generation of young Brits who are told to be thankful for their jobs in call centres and supermarket stockrooms because at least they’re not curled up in a foetal position at home experiencing a deeper sense of self-loathing with each futile day that passes? Isn’t our collective reaction to the issues affecting us increasingly one of “reconciled acquiescence”?
The term ‘Angry Young Man’, Alsop explains, was probably coined by A.P. Herbert in a poem called ‘Angry Young Men’ written for Punch magazine. The poem begins with the lines “No British young, since British young were new/Have had such boons and benefits as you”. This sentiment is not totally off the mark, as many politicians and other members of the comfortable classes often remind us from their deeply-indented wing chairs via the megaphone of mainstream media. But with half a million young people out of work and plenty more forced to impersonate the machines that will soon replace them, governed by a political class too busy spending their hard-earned wages on gay sex orgies and houses they don’t even live in, it’s no wonder the books currently being recommended by the British media are of no interest to them.
Take a look at British writers being published in recent year and what you find is a series of books written by Oxbridge journalists well into middle age, often about journalists or other middle-class Londoners well into middle age, reviewed positively by other journalists well into middle age. The most “shocking” book published recently, with the vaguely revolutionary title of A Call To Arms, is by a 90-year-old former American president. This is not a bitter attack on these writers, whose books are probably mildly funny and/or clever, because of their educational background. The problem is that these books, however interesting and witty they may be, say nothing to or for the quote unquote masses of people waking up each morning convinced there is nothing for them to live for.
Where are the Angry Young Men and Women of our own generation? Where are our manifestos against a society which attacks us for our immaturity while forcing us to live with our parents due to a lack of affordable housing?; who are told that we are addicted to computers by those obsessed with replacing us with machines?; who are accused of solipsism by a cultural and social establishment who stand with their backs turned towards us engaging in a form of cloistered onanism that would make E.M. Forster throw up his guts into the nearest charity bucket?
This isn’t to say books written by Oxbridge-educated journalists and other establishment figures are inherently detached from the lives of what politicians and journalists themselves love to refer to as “the average Brit”. That would be ignoring the likes of Graham Greene, Orwell et al. Nor is this a naïve and brutish demand that all literature should serve as left-wing social commentary. But the fact remains that the type of raw books that were once written by cultural outsiders, whether it was the factory worker Nell Dunn with her Up The Junction (1963), or the less angry but still deeply disgruntled Philip Larkin – whose wish was that his poems would be talked about in pubs – or more recently (1993!) Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, have all but disappeared.
What British literature is presently lacking are notes from the underground, passed up through the floorboards of the House of Commons and the newsrooms of our mainstream media, up into the offices of publishing houses neurotically checking and re-checking their annual accounts, so that the voices currently echoing aimlessly around forums and social media sites and online comment sections can revive an industry that is in good need of a slap around the ears.