What strikes an ex-patriate most about the contemporary British novel is its conformity, its traditional sameness, and its realistically rendered provincialism. Shaped only by its contents, the British novel is the product of group mentality: local, quaint, and self-consciously xenophobic. Why is it that of the many able craftsmen writing in Britain so few have experimented with form, and, of those, experimented with such caution? There is no reason special to the novel genre itself. There are, however, properties about its form–an expression of a particular relation between art and life–which reveal the assumptions and beliefs underlying the characteristic narrowness of the British novel. The culture from which British fiction derives, and the culture insistently expressed in its writing, is clearly oriented towards fact, content, metonymy, empiricism, and the body.
It is a commonplace that British intellectual history since the seventeenth century has consistently evidenced support for the pragmatic and experiential at the expense of the formal. The Lockeian tabula rasa provided a paradigm for British thought. In philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and especially criticism, it is function and accountability that matter. Johnson, Arnold, and Leavis all saw literature as a moral instrument rather than as imaginative re-creation, and successfully disseminated their assumptions through generations of readers. The reductio ad absurdam must surely have been David Holbrook’s complaint in the Guardian that the Profumo scandal could only have occurred because of a lapse in vigilance of contemporary literature.
The instrumental view of literature is especially evident in the novel, which from the start was concerned with the uplifting effect of the ‘good read’. Bunyan, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and their journalist colleagues all worked toward establishing a static lisible novel genre whose function was to reinforce the values of the society the reader inhabited, entertaining him with sequenced gossip organized by a clear moral. This is not to deny, of course, that some writers played games, as evidenced by the fiction of Defoe (the unclear moral direction of Moll Flanders, for instance) or of Sterne, probably the only true British postmodernist. But generally, and as if by mutual agreement, the novelists of the nineteenth and even the twentieth century have experimented, if at all, only with the events ‘out there’. Eccentric characters, strange (but rarely bizarre events) may from time to time relieve the sociological tedium; but even so, the distance between The Cement Garden and This Sporting Life is not so great.