The English novel has for far too long been regarded as a cosily provincial, deeply conservative, anti-experimental enterprise, resistant to innovation, rooted in mimesis, and dedicated to the preservation of a tradition of realism casually related to that of the nineteenth century. It is a view especially popular abroad, particularly in eastern Europe, which has a vested interest in the 1950s, and in the United States, which stakes an imperial claim to the contemporary. But it is a view also to be encountered in this country. Even John Fowles, speaking in 1979, remarked that ‘a lot of contemporary English fiction is abysmally parochial and of no conceivable interest to anyone who is not English and middle class,’ while the novel itself is easily ‘the most despised of the contemporary major art forms in this country.’
As Malcolm Bradbury has pointed out, most recently in The Contemporary English Novel (1979), whether or not this paradigm would be applicable to the hinterland of the English novel it would certainly have a hard time accommodating Beckett, Lowry, or, later, Burgess, Wilson, Golding, Spark, or Lessing, not to mention B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Christine Brooke-Rose, Ian McEwan, or Angela Carter.
In part this model is, indeed, the product of simple disregard and critical myopia. It offers a version of English writing as it appeared to be twenty years ago when the English novel discovered the midlands and the north of England and when Doris Lessing, Angus Wilson, John Fowles, and to some degree Iris Murdoch seemed more unambiguously committed to realism than their subsequent careers suggested. In part it is a product of an implied contrast with the ‘deconstructive’ art of the postmoderns who choose to stress the contingency of experience, the fictive nature of the self and of history, the problematics of writing, the relativity of experience and perception; who seemed, in other words, so much to engage a contemporary vision of life as metatext as to condemn other kinds of writing to irrelevance, a kind of metaphysical parochialism. It is a view which does as much violence to the postmoderns as it does, say, to Saul Bellow who was never the simple realist which some critics chose to suggest and certainly, does not warrant the critical limbo into which they wish to project him. The same is equally true of a number of major English novelists.