Book Review

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

my thoughts on literature and class

Contemporary mainstream English-language literary fiction. These days, I don’t read much of it. Why is that, do you think? And why is it that the genre, the style, the idea, of what should (in many ways) be my literary staple so regularly turns me off? What is it about established authors, both North American and British, and their broadly acclaimed “successful” novels that so often leave me feeling underwhelmed?

Why, when some of the contemporary texts I’ve enjoyed the most in recent years have indeed been novels, are the novels that reach me through simple, direct, industry-sanctioned routes the ones that excite me least? Mathias Enard – published by Fitzcarraldo Editions – is my current favourite novelist, and Faruk Šehić’s Quiet Flows the Una (Istros Books) is one of the most significant literary interactions I’ve had in years. It isn’t the novel as form I dislike, nor the literary novel as form, but it is instead something more significant: what turns me off contemporary mainstream English-language literary fiction is the socio-political worldview that it regularly normalises and often champions.

Although this has long been present in literature, when I am freed of my contemporary, known, setting, I can bypass my feelings of boredom/revulsion at the idolisation of the comfortable, affluent, middle classes. Characters in novels are too often successful, and often novels that write about an outsider are focused on outsiders who are high achievers. The “working class lad” at Oxbridge is a common trope, and the Colson Whitehead novel I recently read also used a highly successful protagonist as a means to explore intersecting racial and gender prejudice. Joshua Cohen’s awful Moving Kings – imo the worst thing Fitzcarraldo has ever released – was published by a mainstream house in the US, and it shows: it is an uninspiring, formulaic novel about affluent people having affluent people problems.

I don’t think it’s true that the only people writing are depressed rich people, and I don’t think it’s true that the only people reading are bored middle class people who love the capitalist system. But, alas, maybe they are.

I once went to the Hay on Wye literary festival and was appalled by the demographics of people interested in literature, and I once saw a writer proposing a “working class literary festival” (alongside tweets of Dom Perignon bottles) and the gross absurdity of this utter fucking contradiction inspired me to try and create an anthology that sees the fucking difference between being working class and not having money.

Fuck off Marxist scholars, the way class and discussion of class manifests in the UK is not how it is in the wanky books you read in your lazy university summers. I have never heard anyone from a background as poor as mine bitch about “how much it cost sending their kids to uni”. It barely cost my parents a penny, because they were poor so I a) got a bigger loan than most of my friends (which obvs I’m unlikely to ever pay back) and b) I worked pretty much the entire way through the course.

I had a part time job throughout sixth form, too, and a part time job when I did my Master’s degree and a full time job pretty much all the rest of the time, alongside doing this blog and also trying to, year by year, develop a literary career. I have never spent daytime hours doing “respectable” work before going home and eating, watching TV then going to sleep. That just, to me, isn’t what life is for. I’ve never had a job that was anything other than a way to provide myself with money to allow me the time to do the work that matters, which, alas, is this bullshit, is churning out thousands of words of prose a week on my blog, is writing and editing poems and stories most days, is desperately sending submissions to magazines every week, is getting rejections all the time but telling myself I have to push through until I eventually reached the stage I’m now at where the rejections are something I’m so used to that they no longer hurt.

I can take the rejections, like, and I need to take them because I need to get rejections to get acceptances. And slowly, over time, I have found readers and I have received acclaim, of sorts. But I’ve worked hard to get to the stage I’m at now, which isn’t solid, isn’t secure, but I’m as solid and secure, psychologically, as I ever have been. I think. Maybe. I don’t know.


I got up very early today to teach, and I’m tired and exhausted and my head feels a bit fuzzy and I’ve been editing poems most of the afternoon and I’m feeling pretty strange and I earned the most I’ve ever earned from writing this week, having TWO paid commissions for a national newspaper, and though the money is barely enough to cover the equivalent of a week’s rent, it’s still fucking incredible – to me – to have reached that stage. And I have worked hard at my work and worked hard at myself to get there.

[clears throat] Why are so many mainstream works of literary fiction about the comfortable Middle classes? About people who haven’t worked hard, who have fallen into comfort and affluence due to the circumstances of their birth and upbringing? Jane Gardam’s 2004 text Old Filth is a fine novel, very enjoyable in places, well constructed, and it very-Man-Bookerishly slides backwards and forwards through memories and in and out of multiple third person perspectives.

Yes, it’s an engagingly told story, but it’s a story about incredibly privileged people, and their privilege is never really questioned. Some of the “bad” things that happen to the characters in Old Filth are explored, but the reasons for the long lives of comfort the characters have (regardless of how emotionally turbulent those long lives might be) are never questioned. There is an affection towards old barristers, towards judges, towards Oxbridge dons and the affluent home counties-dwelling international jet set rich… there is an authorial affection that implies it is shared with the reader.

Maybe this is the problem, maybe this is why I’m tired of this type of fiction, because I have been behind the curtain of the wealthy and I have been in the midst of conflicts of no importance that are exploded into life-altering catastrophes because the real dangers of life are so far away. This book, Old Filth, is a good novel, it works as a piece, but in its affection towards the status quo it presumes the reader similarly feels an ingrained sense of either respect or camaraderie for “the establishment”. There is often a strain of normalised royalism in these texts, too, an idea that the reader has a sense of “social betters”, has a belief in the validity of the hierarchical structures we live within, and I suppose it is this lack of questioning that grates on me in mainstream English-language literary fiction.

It’s just so fucking elitist, and I don’t want to engage with a medium that expects me to aspire towards a glamorousness that I intimately know. I do not think that the marital problems of the rich are the most important topics for narratives, I do not think that super rich orphans have the saddest lives, I do not think that nearly every fictional student attending Oxbridge is a good thing: we get the culture we deserve, I suppose, and in England we have upper middle class-dominated fiction. Lawyers in literary fiction are not always the villain, contrary to the way most people [who aren’t lawyers] tend to speak about them irl. If this isn’t a sign of the misrepresentation that we’ve ended up with, I don’t know what is.

Oh, I’m just bitter, I’m sure. I’m sure I wish I was a rich lawyer or rich doctor or rich salesman, instead of a poor poo poet living his dream life. Lol. Jk. I’m pretty content, actually, I just think that fiction, too often, puts the kinda pricks centrestage who spend their whole lives believing they deserve to be centrestage. Which, imo, they fucking don’t.

Old Filth is a good book, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but I just don’t know if I want to be reading novels that have this kinda societal attitude.


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