UK bestseller lists are usually dominated by rural parish murder mysteries, John Grisham thrillers and historical fiction set in all eras other than our own. Novels that detail contemporary life in unwavering, unforgiving detail are missing. The song of our country, as it is now, is not sung.
Their absence is perhaps understandable. In our age of mass strikes, cost-of-living crises, and political unrest, escapism—even murderous—seems like an attractive option.
This was not the case in the 19th century, when everyone from Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell to Benjamin Disraeli turned to writing novels that described “the way we now live”: he- even the title of Trollope’s 1875 satire of financial scandals. Gaskell’s North and South (1855) is an emotionally feverish exploration of the horrors of industrial England, as the initially naive and snobby Margaret Hale is forced to leave idyllic Helston – a village like “in one of Tennyson’s poems” – and to move north. A few factory worker riots, a few vapid Nordic wallpapers, and a naval mutiny later, Margaret is morally upgraded and, perhaps more importantly, engaged.
Disraeli’s novel Sybil Where The two nations (1845) is a similar exploration of “the condition of England”. The poverty of those who live in the industrial towns of England is so extreme that it seems to belong to another country. Many of Charles Dickens’ works contain an element of reporting on the same locations. Amid ridiculously ridiculous character names, putrid fog and marauding donkeys, hard times (1854), David Copperfield (1850), Oliver Twist (1839), and dark house (1853) all attempted to reflect Britain on the British.
Middle-walk (1872), George Eliot’s “study of provincial life”, is the undisputed masterpiece of its kind. Through a detailed examination of the lives of residents of a town in central England, Eliot explores everything from medical developments to the status of women in the early 19e century. But its regular appearance on lists of the “best state of the nation novels” leaves me uneasy. Is the book intended to deal with national change and the passing of the Reform Act of 1832, or is it a universal examination of human psychology?
State of the nation novels have been defined as those that “address social and political change”. It sounds simplistic, even banal: by its very nature, a work of fiction inevitably addresses social issues. By this calculation, Middle-walk is certainly a novel about the state of the nation, but that of Douglas Adams is just as much The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). Eliot, like Adams, plays with “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything”. It gives us a tangle of human interconnections, grief and failure. The number 42 is for absent subscribers.
Yet some contemporary novelists have taken up the challenge. Amanda Craig has written a sequence of nine interconnected novels all set in contemporary Britain, including the 2020s The golden rule. For her, contemporary novels on the state of the nation are those which, like Middle-walk or one of Dickens or Trollope’s offers, “help us understand the way we live now”. She acknowledges a paucity of modern equivalents like Gaskell and Disraeli, and attributes it to being “bombarded with news from the media”.
Author William Boyd also blames the news cycle. “The fundamental problem is, it seems to me, that time passes so much faster than on the 19e century”. There is a risk for novelists that a “crucial fingertip novel will no longer be relevant in three years”. He uses the example of Justin Cartwright’s 1995 novel In every face I meet. The ‘central epiphanic metaphor’ is an essay scored by former England rugby union captain Will Carling. As Boyd puts it, “this novel will now require footnotes to make sense to someone who does not remember the occasion.”
Imminent obsolescence was less of a problem for Dickens and Trollope: their works were often serialized before publication, in magazines and newspapers that carried short stories as well as fiction. Rather than writing about the political news cycle and contemporary issues, they were practically part of it.
Thackeray’s biographer, DJ Taylor, identifies another problem facing the potential state of the national writer: at the time Thackeray created vanity lounge (1848), “it was possible for a writer to understand his society in a way that is no longer possible today”. They could grasp the political, financial and class structure of society. However, “no modern novelist really understands how money works”. It is much more difficult to describe class signifiers and differences in a time when someone earning a six figure salary can still call themselves “cultural working class”.
And many novelists are out of touch with the class issues that lie at the heart of state-of-the-nation fiction. There are of course exceptions — Luan Goldie’s brilliant new novel These streets deals with gentrification and the cost of living in East London; an area the author knows well. But it would be difficult for a novelist from West London, remaining, voting for the Lib Democrat, to write convincingly about the disillusionment and anti-EU sentiment in a former mining town.
The lack of literary fiction that deals with contemporary life is not a recent development. Among the books that have been acclaimed in the past year, it would be hard to find many that take as their main subject the intricacies and the relentlessness of modern life.
But it would be facetious to pretend that there have been no best-selling novels about the state of the nation in living memory. In 2012, John Lanchester published Capital: a closely observed chronicle of London life as the 2008 financial crisis rocks the world. The lives of road dwellers in London – from Polish builders to Senegalese footballers and wealthy bankers – are painstakingly explored, and a true portrait of Britain in the 21st century emerges.
More recently, Ali Smith wrote to her Seasonal quartet in the years following the Brexit referendum. Autumn winter spring Summer and this year side piece offer a commentary on British life as it is lived now. Whereas 19th-century novelists recorded railroad timetables, stamp prices, and contemporary legal battles, Smith instead reveled in descriptions of disembodied heads and an almost ekphrastic dedication to describing art. His books deal with contemporary life — Summer managed to tackle Covid-19 despite not being published until a few months into the pandemic – but, in their radical form and style, they are not so much “state of the nation” as markers of the “state of literature”. fiction”.
Neither Lanchester’s nor Smith’s accomplishments change the fact that this is a genre where the tide is receding. What could be the cause of this reluctance to fictionalize the everyday life of normal people?
For Boyd, there’s a pragmatic reason: it’s risky, and potentially thankless, for writers to write about the present. Many novelists – including him – write about the recent or semi-distant past because “everything is fixed and known”. Of blue afternoon (1993) at Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (2017), Boyd wrote contemporary novels and short stories, but he “would challenge any reader to determine what year they are set in”. He takes “great care not to make any topical references so that his contemporary look can last a decade or maybe two and be generic rather than accurate.”
But Craig takes a different approach. Protagonist of his latest novel, The golden rule, is a single mother who cleans houses for a living and continually struggles to make ends meet. But Craig thinks readers are put off by the centre-left moralizing potential of a novel that deals with poverty and financial inequality. A state of the nation novel “must be able to hold up a mirror to some of the great social and personal issues of the day and ask readers what they sympathize with”, but “a strong moral compass does not been in fashion for the past 75 years’.
This difference of opinion marks a subtly different approach to the purpose of contemporary details in fiction. Are they meant to give a “contemporary feel” – a modern backdrop to the action of the story – or are they part of the direction of the story and the reason it was written?
With Boyd’s fiction, the answer is clearly the first – and for Craig, as with his Victorian counterparts, the answer is the second. But for Smith, the answer lies somewhere in between: contemporary resonances give her stories momentum and purpose, but her Seasonal quartet is less a fiction that reflects contemporary life than a fiction that evokes contemporary life but retains an element of detachment from it.
This is why these novels have gone out of fashion. For Dickens, Eliot, Trollope and Thackeray, literary culture was inextricably linked to everyday life: novels literally appeared alongside short stories in the pages of periodicals – and often used current events as potential plots. Nowadays, authors, novelists and the rarefied book world are separated from “normal life”. (Unsurprisingly, the release of statistics reveals a shortage of working-class employees in industry.) We don’t want to read novels about the housing crisis, corrupt politicians and global turmoil when we can watch them. on our television screens. In response, fiction has found a home ever further removed from everyday reality.
But we must not be satisfied with this separation of literary culture from everyday existence. Let’s bring back serialized novels in newspapers, books with thinly veiled real-life politicians, and fiction about the details of normal life. It’s not the issues or the politics that readers remember from Victorian state-of-the-nation novels, but the characters.
The Britain they lived in, with its financial scandals and venal celebrities, is not so different from ours. The stories are still there: a modern-day Becky Sharpe in a train strike; a scheming and corrupt Obadiah Slope in the contemporary Church of England; an update Oliver Twist as a look at the deplorable state of children in care; or even Dorothea Brooke as the wife of a certain inept deputy. All we do is wait for the talent to tell us.