British “state of the nation” novels

One of my fellow Legend Press authors, Mark Piggott, wrote an interesting article in the Independent about ‘state of the nation’ novels. I thought it would be complaining that nobody’s writing about contemporary British issues these days – there’s been quite a bit of that recently, because historical novels have been getting a lot of the awards and attention lately. But he takes a more interesting line, noting that historical novels have been getting the attention, but pointing out the wealth of books tackling contemporary issues (of which mine is listed as one, although that’s not the only reason I liked the article!).

Piggott also explores the difficulty of writing a ‘state of the nation’ novel, getting good quotes from some major British literary figures. Martin Amis thinks it’s down to a lack of national pride – the US now produces more state of the nation novels, because it’s the centre of the earth; British novelists are more like dissidents. Toby Litt says that writers are trying it, but in a “more focused” way – “they don’t do sweep, they do stab.” Piggott also makes the point that sometimes it’s new arrivals who most effectively hold a mirror up to British society, and so the place to look is more on the margins than on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Anyway, as someone who aspires to describe at least a part of the state of the nation in his writing, I thought it was a good exploration of the difficulties and possibilities of doing this, and also a guide to some of the more interesting names in British literature.