/ 26 February 2008

Whatever happened to literary love?

I am alone next to the pool at Le Prince Maurice Hotel in Mauritius. In contrast, all the people around me are paired off. Every coupling is a story pitted with conflict, resolution, stalemates, passions, misunderstandings, wars and truces.

A pity, then, how little hope they have of picking up a good modern novel and finding some reflection of, or consolation for, or explication of, their private experiences. On the bookshelves they might find fantasies, sagas, bodice-rippers and bonkbusters, but real stories of love, unvarnished, often brutal as well as tender, will be harder to locate.

This is odd. Love has formed a cornerstone of literary history — inspiring Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, Doctor Zhivago and Lolita, to name just a few. Jeffrey Eugenides, writing in the Guardian on February 9, did a useful job in highlighting what is still a rich mine for short-story writers, such as William Trevor, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. What he neglected to point out is that, at novel length, this most ancient and worthwhile of literary seams is struggling to produce gold.

When did we fall out of love with love? If you scan the winners of major English-language literary prizes, you will be hard pushed to find a single love story featured in the past 10 years. Even Ian ­McEwan’s deservedly successful Atonement is overlaid with a second, larger narrative of war and history.

The only really interesting literary love stories have come from gay writers, such as Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Joanna Briscoe and Charlotte Mendelson. That they concentrate, in the main, on same-sex relationships doesn’t in the least invalidate their achievements, but it makes you wonder what has happened to the age-old saga of love between men and women and why so few people are writing it. Is no one producing contemporary literary love stories at novel length any more? If not, why?

I am in a good position to answer these questions because most of the efforts being produced today cross my radar as president of the judging panel for Le Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories. The answer is that they are still written, but in modest quantities and with often modest ambitions. Yet I know that some past shortlisted authors and winners of the prize — Louise Dean, Anne Donovan and Briscoe most particularly — have written magnificent books that could have sat comfortably on the shortlists of the big prizes. Donovan indeed made it to the Orange, but the ­others were passed by.

And therein lies one of the answers to the second question — why is the showing so thin? Can it be that the forces which shape the literary scene have come to see the roman d’amour as a debased form, rubbing too closely against genre fiction and thus sullied with the taint of bad writing? Even the most successful love-themed novels of the past generation of writers ­- Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Birdsong, High Fidelity, Miss Garnett’s Angel, Other People’s Children — have been shunned by prize judges and to some extent by critics.

It seems judges prefer matters that represent ”the larger picture” — postcolonialism (Salman Rushdie, Andrea Levy, Ben Okri, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), good old Irish pessimism (Anne Enright, John Banville) and pseudo-Americanism (DBC Pierre, Lionel Shriver). Love between a man and a woman is no longer fit for proper literary examination (although you might want to include The English Patient if you can finish it). And yet how can that be? What larger picture is there than the picture of love?

It is a phenomenon that not only crosses the Atlantic but touches other art forms. Other than the long-standing quality of Anne Tyler, no great writer of contemporary American novel-length love stories comes to mind. This is also true of film, at least commercially. A Time article last year, ”Who killed the love story?”, noted that no love story has made the top 10 box-office draws for a decade.

The screenwriter, Richard Curtis, proffered an explanation that could as easily apply to fiction. ”If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it’s called searingly realistic, even though it’s never happened in the history of mankind. If you write about people falling in love, which happens a million times a day … you’re accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Le Prince Maurice prize, despite boasting a heavyweight jury of Sarah Waters, Irvine Welsh, Marina Lewycka, David Nobbs, Simon Armitage and Joanne Harris, is sometimes treated less seriously than other prizes. Or perhaps it’s just that old — or maybe recent — English story, that we don’t ”do” love. It is a bit embarrassing, a bit sickly, a bit naive. As Eugenides observed after talking to friends about love stories, ”they were expecting happier, fluffier stories”.

Yet the current longlist I am reading features an excruciating orgy among swingers in a Scottish holiday camp, two lovers brought together by quantum physics and love in a post-apocalyptic American landscape. The range and ambition of the material makes it plain: love is not flowers and bunny rabbits, it is life itself.

While I was planning this article over breakfast in a café, an elderly man started bellowing at a young waitress. His stiff-haired wife, skin crinkled by the sun, watched, her face tight with embarrassment — or was it with shared outrage at the perceived slight against her husband? If the wife is embarrassed, how will she punish him? What will the waitress tell her boyfriend about it? Or perhaps the stiff-haired women isn’t his wife at all.

We are surrounded by love stories, most obviously our own. We should come out of the closet and fall in love with them again, and without shame, and with passion. With love, even. — Â