Once, when the novel possessed the clout television and film possess, this transgression could change the world. Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby played no small part in driving the reform of the Yorkshire schools in Britain, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook changed lives around the world, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was a touchstone for the US civil rights movement.
It would be tempting to suggest the nostalgia many commentators, particularly those on the Left, feel for this conception of the novel as a force for social action is really a nostalgia for a different time, a time when novels were widely read and closely entwined in the lives of those caught up in the process of social change. And, indeed, in many ways it is. Certainly, David Marr’s plea several years ago “that (Australian) writers start focusing on what is happening in this country”, that they “address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live”, was representative of a long-standing view that writers can and should be social activists as well as artists.
But simultaneously it is hard to ignore the sense of excitement that books such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe or even A.L. McCann’s splendidly ill-tempered Subtopia spark in contemporary readers, the sense there is something transcendent in the passion of their rage against the machine, in their self-annihilating assault upon the foundations of the societies they depict.