Bourgeois angst? Life is too short

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. In our great national melting pot, one section of society is being systematically excluded from what we read or see on our screens. “There is this notion that the lives of the comfortably-off middle class don’t merit being treated seriously and with compassion,” the novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson has said. A publisher had once rejected his work with the brutal words, “I will not publish books about women who drive 4x4s.”

It is all very heart-rending, and the air is already thick with cries of well-bred outrage. What about the Brontes? Or George Eliot? Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? Elizabeth Bennet “would definitely be driving a Volvo XC90 today,” the novelist Jojo Moyes has written.

Yet who, if they are entirely honest with themselves, could deny that the publisher’s instinct was right? The heart sinks at the idea of a novel, a play or TV series about a comfortably well-off woman who drives a 4×4, or indeed a Volvo XC90. It seems that either the middle class has become duller of late, or that something has happened to our sensibility as readers and viewers.

Areas of entertainment which once passed the time quite acceptably (a novel about adultery, a Home Counties sitcom, a Sunday night television drama about a dad being made redundant) seem to belong to another age. Beside the sharp bright colours of everyday life, these stories, with their wry humour and observation, their gentle tug of sadness, seem drearily pastel-shaded.

Nicholson has said that “a well-off plastic surgeon can suffer as much as an Irish lad who has been abused,” but, even as he said these words, he must have sensed that the fight was lost. In a world full of absurdity, cruelty, heartbreak and laughter, a plastic surgeon could certainly engage the interest as a central character in, say, a satire on contemporary vanity or a creepy tale of medical abuse, but his sufferings? Sorry, life’s too short.

It feels disloyal to write it – my own stories are peopled by middle-class characters – but there is a sense at the moment that bourgeois concerns no longer quite cut it. Our palate has been dulled by the sensational age in which we live. The best-seller lists are dominated by tales of childhood misery or by celebrity boasting. TV reality shows provide the instant gratification of mockery, triumph or embarrassment. As the past few days have shown, 24-hour news serves up as much scandal and drama as any soap opera.

Because most of society now clusters anxiously on the social middle ground, people have little interest in being entertained by things (frustration, depression, a general sense of missing out) which they can find in their own lives. When they pick up a book or switch on the TV, it is the high concept, the story which is distant from everyday reality which appeals.

Yet Nicholson is on to something. Perhaps it is not the comfortably-off who are out of fashion so much as stories about relationships. For a reader or viewer to become absorbed in character, and have sympathy for human dilemma, requires an effort. It is easier to respond to caricatures – the 4×4 woman, we can assume, is a cosseted yummy-mummy; the plastic surgeon is wealthy, but morally compromised.

Book publishing is a reactive industry; its executives are too busy to fret about the future of fiction. The editor who rejected Nicholson’s story of middle-class life knew that it is not domestic life but large, dramatic ideas, the sweep of continents and migration, which snag the attention right now.

It is something of a British phenomenon – no one worries about what cars the characters of Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan drive – but it is one which affects what we read and watch. Right now, we are too distracted, too busy, to be detained by the intricacies of human nature.

Independent, Friday, 15 July 2011