Monday, January 12, 2009

Does the credit crunch have a silver lining for literature?
A quarter-century ago, a Britain of dole queues, urban riots and political venom also saw the rise of a great generation of novelists. Boyd Tonkin writing in The Independent asks if this slump might also have a literary lining of silver.

It hardly sounds like the prelude to a literary revolution. Under a hard-as-nails free-market government, old industries sicken and die at a pandemic rate. Unemployment rockets; inflation spikes as well. As public spending plummets, riots break out on decrepit city streets. Rancour and rage dominate the public realm, twisted up another notch when a skin-saving foreign war polarises an already fractured nation. To cap it all, a long-planned final battle with union power culminates in the mother of all mining strikes.

What else happened in Britain in the first half of the 1980s? Well, literary fiction – for a couple of decades, a dowdy old aunt among the arts – suddenly bred a generation of spellbinders and seducers. When Anthony Burgess lost the Booker Prize in 1980 (with Earthly Powers) and Salman Rushdie won in 1981 (with Midnight's Children), a fusty coterie game all at once began to feel like a thrilling battle of the giants.

Two years later, Granta magazine logged its ascendant stars and – in its first list of "Best of Young British Novelists", set an agenda for attention and appeal that has, staggeringly, lasted a full quarter-century: Rushdie, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker, Rose Tremain – the last a hugely popular winner of the 2008 Orange Prize.

On the high street, a former WH Smith executive called Tim Waterstone plunged some get-lost money into – of all things – classy upmarket bookshops, just as the retail world froze. Did they fly? They soared. Culture hounds who, a few years previously would have burned "modern British novels" for warmth while they queued to catch the new Scorsese or Bertolucci or see The Clash, haunted the faux-library charms of the new chain in search of excitement from new arrivals or – with JG Ballard and others – resurrected greats.
Read the full story at The Independent online.

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