From the archive

The big contemporary questions

Putting aside that the given straightforward reason becomes unconvincing or even unintelligible when applied to an actual novel

There is a constant clamour for novelists to “take on big contemporary questions”, as a recent Guardian opinion piece put it – to leave the Hampstead dinner parties and the safe historical settings behind, and write the Novel For Our Times. Actually, these books get written all the time, from Margaret Drabble‘s schematic portraits of the 1970s to Jonathan Coe‘s of the 1980s and Blake Morrison or Richard T Kelly‘s uneven sagas of the New Labour years, right up to the recent flood of credit crunch literature. The problem is that they’re not usually very good, for quite straightforward reasons: creating and managing a large, varied and realistic cast of characters is very hard for an individual novelist to do, particularly now that society is so diverse. When working outside their own experience, novelists tend to fall back on recycled journalism, contrivance and cartoon.