From The Critic:
What single factor connects Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), H.G. Wells’s Kipps (1910), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and Martin Amis’s Money (1984)?
The answer is that, once you strip aside the incidentals of plot, character and milieu or the fact their authors are exclusively male, they are all about upward social mobility. Like the eighteenth-century picaresques that preceded them, their heroes are young men on the make, climbing over or sometimes crawling underneath the hurdles erected by a vigilant authority with the aim of frustrating their passage through life.
Nearly 70 years on from Lucky Jim, we inhabit a much more fractured literary environment whose authorial catchment area is that much wider and whose range of subjects is that much more diverse. These are both welcome developments.
All the same, when the English novel — if such a thing still exists — said goodbye to bourgeois aspiration and middle-class self-advancement, it lost a dimension. For all the efforts of the egalitarian left to deny it, the ability to get on, get by (or sometimes only stay put) remains a vital part of the average human experience. It explains the popularity of family sagas, of those huge, sprawling, multi-generational monuments to collective endeavour. It may also explain why the specimen “literary novel” sells so few copies.