NOVELISTS IN INTERVIEW. Eited by John Haffenden. Methuen. 328 pp. $25; paperback $10.95.
LITERARY FICTION in the United States may be withering on the vine of academia, but in Great Britain it has entered an era of vigor and prosperity. After the long quiet period that followed the false promise offered by the Angry Young Men, the British novel has not merely revived, it has discovered new sources and subjects. The great comic tradition lives again, in the work of writers as diverse, though uniformly interesting, as Martin Amis and Fay Weldon, William Boyd and David Lodge; but another school is by now well past its infancy, that of writers -- Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Timothy Mo -- whose language is English but who are not themselves English and whose settings are alien, either literally or figuratively. All of these writers are relatively young, so i seems safe to predict that for several decades they will be setting the pace not merely for English fiction, but for all fiction written in English.
Thus it is especially useful to have on hand Novelists in Interview, in which a number of these writers and a handful of older ones talk about themselves and their craft. Their interviewer, John Haffenden, seems more interested in the latter than the former, so there is rather too much chat in these pages about specific novels and specific characters and even specific phrases; he encourages the writers, that is, to engage in the lit crit that he himself, as a lecturer in English literature, presumably practices. But he is a well-informed and penetrating questioner, and in the process of getting these 14 men and women to talk about their novels he also leads them into matters of more general interest: how they live and work, what they hope to accomplish in their fiction, what they believe fiction to be and do.
To his credit Haffenden is not interested in material of the sort that fills the gossip columns, so there is almost nothing in these interviews that is purely and irrelevantly personal; he presents us with writers rather than celebrities, which is precisely what a book such as this should do. As writers, his subjects reveal themselves to be acutely conscious both of the limits of their art and of the enormous, indeed immeasurable, freedom it offers them. They clearly work hard at what they do and, equally clearly, regard it as hard work. They seem unanimous in the conviction that there is a distinct and useful place for the novelist in society, but none of them seems to hold an exaggerated view of the importance of that place. They are aware of (and opinionated about) each other's work, but they give no sense of being members of a hermetic literary community that lives solely for itself.
MOST IF NOT all of them seem to agree that a work of fiction cannot really be planned, that from the moment of inception it takes on a life of its own and places the author at its mercy. "I'm not in the business of making clockwork novels which go from A to B when you wind them up," Russell Hoban says, "I'm at the service of the material that enters me. It takes me where it wants to go, and I might not know why I'm going there. That's all right. The material requires of me that I make it manifest as clearly and as beautifully as I can. There my responsibility ends, and whether you or I understand it is secondary."
As Ian McEwan observes, "when you finish a piece of work you rapidly forget all the confused alternatives that existed along the way, and you imbue it with intention," words that should command the most urgent attention of those critics and academics who so confidently examine texts and proclaim "the author's intention"; as McEwan and others herein attest, the author's intention is often beyond the grasp of anyone, the author himself most particularly included.
This is not to suggest, though, that these or any other authors of serious fiction merely sit down with quill in hand and await the arrival of the muse. All of them are very much aware of fiction as something to be worked at, as a form that imposes certain requirements on those who practice it, and all of them have sturdy opinions about how those requirements must be met. You cannot, for example, write about that which you do not know: "Part of the formal integrity of what you write must have its roots in what you are and in the life you live," David Lodge says, readily conceding that his work reflects "the limitations of my own character and experience." But no matter what many readers may believe, fiction is not the handmaiden of reality; as Malcolm Bradbury succinctly puts it, "Fictions are fictions," or, as Iris Murdoch says, "I reveal other people's secrets, not mine, except in the sense that any artist reveals himself to some extent in his work. But it's the secrets of my fictional characters that I'm giving away."
On this issue, though, there must always be the caveat that a writer's work is always his own, and he is always in it. None of these novelists speaks more directly or movingly to this point than Anita Brookner, who acknowledges that her novels about lonely women "are all invented, but they speak of states of mind which forced me to do something about those states of mind." When Haffenden observes that "many people wouldn't quite recognize what it is that you want to cry out against in life" because she has been successful both as a novelist and an art historian, she poignantly replies: "But the center cannot hold. Those two activities that you've mentioned are outside the natural order. I only ever wanted children, six sons." For Brookner, if not for her readers, the books have not been enough.
They may not be enough but they certainly are fine, which can be said of the work of all the writers represented here; apart from those already mentioned, they are Martin Amis, Angela Carter, William Golding, V.S. Pritchett, Salman Rushdie, David Storey, Emma Tennant and Fay Weldon. Not merely are they fine writers, they are fine talkers as well; the interview with Martin Amis must be singled out as especially lively and, for admirers of his work, informative. Though Novelists in Interview gets bogged down from time to time in what borders on textual analysis, so much else in it is interesting and thoughtful that even this can be forgiven.