Tuesday 12 February 2008


George Steiner’s talk at Somerset House last night made Zadie Smith’s comments on the state of writing seem anodyne in comparison.

Talking about taboos, and the books he had not written because of them, George Steiner said that one of the great sources of power in literature used to be proximity to taboo. Now, we in the West are living in an era in which there are no taboos…everything goes… and the powerlessness is reflected in our writing.

“Our fiction is in trouble,” he said.

Picking up on the banality of much subject matter in the novel, he said, “I can’t face another novel on adultery in Hampshire”.

He thought our narrative structures were ‘tired’ and that stylistically we had little originality.

He mentioned a few writers deemed to be current ‘greats’ in the UK, and said they are merely aping the greats in America.

Our non fiction is written far better, he said. Biography, history, travel writing. All written better than most fiction.

And one of the strengths of contemporary writing is poetry.

Fantastic talk. Another wake-up call.

I found myself next to George Steiner in the queue for drinks after the talk. I thanked him for throwing down the gauntlet. Nearly said “Have you read about Willesden…?” but I didn’t. My guess is, he had.

Prior to the talk it was a privilege to see Sean O’Brien (Winner of the T S Eliot Prize for The Drowned Book) sign up as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Offered either Dickens’ quill or Byron’s pen, he chose the pen. Understandably.

Anyone can attend these talks. Anyone can join The Royal Society of Literature.


George Steiner information HERE

Sean O’Brien information HERE


Tania Hershman said...

Thank goodness there are people like him, not only speaking out but unafraid to speak out on the state of fiction when given a platform at such an auspicious body as the Royal Society of Literature. Love the comments on adultery in Hampshire and Brit writers "aping" Americans.

Did he have any advice? Is American doing something right that Britain is not?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Seems so. Bellow, Updike, Roth... all deserving the title 'great'... as far as I understood him. Remember, I was an ant in a hall of giants!

Advice? Not at all. Apart from the implicit 'where have our originality and balls gone?' sort.

It fizzed in my head for hours.

Unknown said...

"He mentioned a few writers deemed to be current ‘greats’ in the UK..."

Do you recall any of the writers that George mentioned, Vanessa? I'm interested who his favourites are...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

The writers he seemed to admire are those listed in my reply above.


Unknown said...

Ah, all American writers then (perhaps excluding Bellow).


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think that's the point he was making, Jamie.

As per my post:

Steiner stalked about

"a few writers deemed to be current ‘greats’ in the UK, and said they are merely aping the greats in America."

Bellow is always thought of an a Jewish/American writer, isn't he?

I've never heard him referred to as Jewish/Canadian.