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In This #Problematic Age, Where Is The Millennial Novel?
Nathalie Olah , June 27th, 2018 09:07

Difficult times require difficult writing argues Nathalie Olah as she asks why publishing houses seem to be producing a stream of safe novels by the same sort of writer, ignoring the important voices of the day

Last week I attended the women’s prize for fiction in Bedford Square. There was a marquee and canapes and drinks supplied by Baileys, which I let curdle in my stomach for a few hours while Guardian journalists and z-list actors rubbed shoulders and milled around looking pensive. I wouldn’t usually attend an event like this, but I liked one of the books: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. My friend was rooting for The Idiot by Elif Batumen, but in the end it was Kamila Shamsie’s book, Home Fire that took the prize, and after several gushing reviews from other guests, I gave it a go and agreed: it really is a working of staggering ability.

All three books represent remarkable achievements by their authors. They are written with urgency, emerging as critical documents on the experiences of otherness, diasporic alienation and the conflict between heritage and the necessities of modern life, all of which are both prevalent and prescient. But while on the one hand it seemed as though the world of fiction writing, and publishing more broadly, has risen to the occasion of becoming more inclusive and more global in its outlook, I walked away from that event with the gnawing sense that it also confirmed one of its biggest, and most critical, failings.

Writers of colour are producing such sheer volumes of critical work at the moment that it only serves to highlight the real paucity of novels dedicated to honestly exploring the excesses, limitations and emergent, narcissistic horrors that exist in the more entrenched and privileged corners of white culture. It also highlights a tendency in publishing to focus its attention outwards, and avoid introspection about the cultural milieu in which it sits. All of this contributes to a fairly uncomfortable dynamic in which the predominantly white, predominantly middle-class gatekeepers of the publishing industry - who have always belonged to a social strata several rungs above the characters whose ‘raw portrayal’ they clasp their hearts and gush over - reward themselves for having delivered critical social commentary.

There are a few exceptions. Otessa Moshfegh’s latest, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, due to be published later this Summer, might just answer the cry for a so-called millennial novel, despite the anachronistic, turn-of-the-century setting and in spite of Oshfegh lying at the absolute outer extreme of what might be considered millennial. More so than any other work I can think of in recent memory, it goes deep on the the narcissistic tendencies of the wealthy and over-educated, via a truly loathsome protagonist whose self-absorption is enough to make anyone quit this new media life for an inner-city teaching position. At one point her nameless protagonist declares, “I felt myself float up and away, higher and higher into the ether until my body was just an anecdote, a symbol, a portrait hanging in another world”. Literally find me a better description of the solipsistic, self-importance epidemic we are currently living through.

Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is another close contender, about a woman so bent out of shape by her own psychological decadence, she becomes obsessed by a possibly imaginary merman who visits her on Venice beach night after night, at one point dry humping his possibly invisible body to an audience of beachgoers.

These books work because they go against the tide of the publishing industry in 2018 (pun intended), to present us with horror and taboo. But they could go further. Satire never works by halves. It took Jonathan Swift to propose eating babies to expose the abhorrent stranglehold of Britain over Ireland and the shortcomings of modern economics. It took Valerie Solanas to suggest eradicating men to fix society and expose the failings of patriarchy. It took Bret Easton Ellis to unleash a homicidal maniac on to the streets of New York to finally burst the perception of Reagan-Thatcher’s proto-Mondeo Man. It will take a work of similarly staggering grotesquery to finally open our eyes to the complacent, grandstanding world of much contemporary journalism and publishing, the narcissistic horror of posting several hundreds of times a day on social media, of a private therapy industry turning over millions of pounds every week, the wild notion of committee-approved self-love and the lunacy of clicktivism.

But this won’t happen, because a fear of issuing controversial work is being driven by publishing’s dependency on corporate investors and the rise of social media castigating anything that diverts from certain orthodoxies for being #problematic. This ultimately eliminates the possibility for satire, leaving us with endless polemic and damnation - people shouting about how bad certain people, ideas and cultural phenomenon are. We need hateful, controversial characters to reflect a hateful and controversial world, to elucidate and even exaggerate our own, fairly hateful place within it.

What’s more, while Ward, Shamsie and Batumen graduate from the Women’s Prize to occupying Waterstones Best Seller lists, the faction within publishing traditionally tasked with pushing the boundaries of fiction becomes the sole preserve of an exclusive set of alumni from creative writing programmes, and largely befitting the ethnic and financial profile that has always gone with that. If we were looking to this world for a critical commentary on the cultural phenomenon of which it is a part, then we’d be sorely disappointed. The world of high-brow literary salons and journals is guilty of producing some of the most insipid, self-congratulatory material anywhere in the world and without any of the irony displayed in either Moshfegh or Broder’s writing. This faction produce reams and reams on the quiet, internal struggles of its farmers market authors, focussing heavily on description, rather than dialogue, action, directness and humour. It is fiction that obfuscates and avoids, centring on the still, quiet joy of holding a ripe peach in the palm of one’s left hand, while the rest of us, I dunno, are out working. It speaks of a class of author that can afford to exist without a sense of urgency, because the forces of poverty and racism and homelessness and violence will never affect it.

In fact, much of that scene can be fairly well summed up by those wistful headshots of the author, eyes squinting into the middle distance, or a front-on portrait with hair cascading over one shoulder, accompanied by pull-quotes that always read something like: “fiction is an attempt to slow time in spite of all life’s insistences that it continue.” And you just want to shake the person and say, what in the name of god are you talking about, Tilly? Because that is not and has never been literature’s job. Not when there are so many urgent, pressing, devastating issues taking place around us. Not when there is so much to rinse.

When has literary fiction ever felt so disconnected from the pervasive modes of expression, and what does it tell us about the state of publishing? For one, that some entrenched prejudices and limited experience on the part of the publishing industry prevent it from fulfilling its one sole aim: to seek out and elevate today’s most important voices.

For every one of the writers whose work we were celebrating at the prize ceremony came an army of Hampstead mothers in LK Bennett, or their younger equivalents, wearing red lipstick and organic cotton twill and sermonizing on the power of this word or that, the beauty of cleanly-written prose, the exquisiteness of certain phraseology. Patrons of the arts. Well-spoken, rehearsed, initiated.

Where’s the great millennial novel, you, them and pretty much everyone else with half a vested interest seems to be asking, or at least its British equivalent?

Certainly not here, among all the quaffing of Baileys and chatter. Most likely it is on the desktop or locked in the head of some disenfranchised kid living north of the M25, who still - in spite of all conspicuous attempts by the industry to diversify - remains eternally locked out of the conversation. It’s a radical idea, isn’t it, to publish work that goes for the jugular, reaching beyond the literary fray to touch at the heart of what’s really going on here, and yet which of you publishers will be brave enough to do it?