Gabriel Josipovici on the Contemporary British Novel

Writer and academic Gabriel Josipovici rejects the work of leading British novelists as hollow and self-satisfied
Ian McEwan
Novelist Ian McEwan: a prep boy showing off? Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Dalya Alberge, writing on The Guardian website, reports recent comments from academic Gabriel Josipovici on the state of contemporary British literature. Josipovici rejects writers such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie for works he claims are without substance: little more than 'prep-school boys showing off'. He also singles out American novelist Philip Roth for criticism, suggesting that despite thought-provoking work there is too much self-assuredness in the prose. Alberge has more (via Susan Tomaselli):
"We are in a very fallow period," Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears".

He said: "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

"I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock." Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy remained more avant-garde than the so-called avant-garde today, Josipovici argued.

"An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration."


Such novels had a "lack of vision and limited horizons".

"One finishes them and feels, 'So what?' – so very different from the gut-wrenching experience of reading Herman Melville's Bartleby or William Golding's The Inheritors," said Josipovici.


Josipovici extended his criticism to one of the behemoths of modern US writing, Philip Roth.

"For all Roth's playfulness – a heavy-handed playfulness at the best of times – he never doubts the validity of what he is doing or his ability to find a language adequate to his needs. As a result, his works may be funny, they may be thought-provoking, but only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking."

Overall, he said, while the likes of Kafka were plagued by self-doubt, his modern peers seemed arrogant and self-satisfied, "which is mildly depressing".

Read the article: Dalya Alberge, 'Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic', guardian.co.uk, 28 July 2010

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