Amanda Craig, who is known as a literary polemicist and an author of sharp contemporary fiction, has just pitched into what seems like a perennial national debate about four boys.
That's Martin, Ian, Julian and Salman, as in Amis, McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie. These lads are now, respectively, 61, 62, 64 and 63, and two of them are grandfathers, but that's by the by.
Craig's complaint, aired in Fiction Uncovered, is that Amis et al have somehow prevented a generation of writers from getting their due recognition. I'm not so sure they will thank her for this, but Craig names Clare Chambers, Liz Jensen and Pat Ferguson as examples of great, unacknowledged talents languishing in the shadow of their publicity-hogging seniors. If this boys' club had not sucked all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere, says Craig – with no real evidence for her assertion – we would now speak of Chambers, Jensen etc in the same breath as ...
Well, why not ? It's a point of view but one that has, on my reading, a few obvious things wrong with it.
First, it's probably news to Amis and co that they are the kings of Parnassus UK. For 30 years and more they've had jealous rivals snapping at their heels (remember Tibor Fischer's review of Yellow Dog?) and in some cases surpassing them. Certainly, by the suspect yardstick of literary prizes, there's a long list of writers who came after McEwan and Barnes but who have secured much greater public recognition. Roddy Doyle, Hanif Kureishi, Hilary Mantel are three obvious names that come to mind.
Second, I'm not sure that genuine creativity works in the way Craig believes. Really good writers are not troubled by brilliant contemporaries. Shakespeare competed with Marlowe and Ben Jonson; Byron with Keats; Dickens with Thackeray; Woolf with Joyce, and so on. Strong talents are galvanised by rival artists not crushed by them. Or they go their own way, making their own good fortune. They are not cowed by top dogs.
If Craig and her disappointed contemporaries have had such a hard time, why has it been (apparently) so easy for Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Philip Hensher? Could it be that these literary arrivistes are, er, actually better? And what about the scores of wannabe Amises and Rushdies crouching expectantly in the wings, derivative, unpublished, manuscripts at the ready ?
Finally, I could be wrong, but I don't think the publishing or reviewing community operates in the way Craig describes, either. In my experience, there is, of course, a predisposition to favour established names, but there are also (among reviewers) many experts in tall-poppy syndrome, knives poised, and (among publishers) editors on the urgent search for so-called "new voices". That latter quest makes sense. As a publisher you want to renew the landscape, plant new seeds and develop the property for the future.
There's a lot wrong with literary London, but a lot right with it, too. And the remarkable thing about it, during the years of the supposed Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie hegemony, is how much brilliant variety has come to the fore. Maybe posterity will be kinder to Ms Craig and her contemporaries. For the moment, the jury is still out. Harsh, but true.
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