Ian Sansom

Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie are cut down to size

Like a weary schoolmaster toiling over his pupils’ homework, Peter Kemp dispenses praise, encouragement or reproof to modern fiction’s big-hitters

Zadie Smith tends to meander ‘as her whimsy takes her’, according to Peter Kemp. [Getty Images]

It is very possible that Peter Kemp is the best-read man in Britain. Certainly, as the Sunday Times’s chief literary critic for goodness knows how many years, he has read and opined upon more works of new fiction than most. His is either a dream job or an absolute nightmare, depending on how you feel about the state of the novel. A Sisphyean task? A Herculean labour? Or just a colossal waste of time? All those keen debuts, all that second-rate dross, all those egos demanding attention: Kemp has bravely buckled up, knuckled down and dutifully banged out 800-plus words, week in, week out, for longer than most of us have been able to tell the difference between a roman-fleuve and a roman-à-clef. Retroland is an intriguing compilation of his unstinting efforts, shaped into a kind of argument.

The argument, in summary, is that fiction in English since the 1970s has displayed ‘a widespread and diverse enthralment with the past’. Kemp divides this alleged preoccupation with the past into four main categories: an ‘engrossment’ with the political past, in particular the end of the British Empire; an engagement with the personal past, relating to childhood trauma and hidden lives; an obsession with historical fiction as a genre category; and the overwhelming presence of the literary past, leading to various kinds of sequels, prequels, reworkings and imitations.

This is an interesting idea, or set of ideas, but the insights are not fully developed and are anyway rather self-contradictory and limiting, and the vast task of lumping them together isn’t entirely convincing. ‘But, wherever they originated from or came to be located, novelists have had far more in common than separates them.’ Really? Do all – I don’t know – reviewers for Sunday newspapers have more in common than separates them? At the very edges of Kemp’s account, you do get glimpses of genuine outliers – Kamala Markandaya, the much-overlooked Buchi Emecheta, David Cook, Paul Kingsnorth – but there’s really nothing remotely odd, experimental or unusual about the works or the authors discussed, and the book essentially amounts to a survey of corporate publishing’s big-hitters over the past half century.

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