Robert McCrum 

Where are today’s literary nomads?

Robert McCrum: Writers such as George Orwell and Henry Miller explored deprivation and exigency. Where are their modern counterparts?
  
  

Whatever happened to the garret and the gutter? The great literary boom of 1980 to 2010 is over. Prices are collapsing, and the winds of austerity whistle around the world. But writers show no sign of exploring deprivation or exigency.

It used not to be this way. I've been reading a new book about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Frederick Turner's Renegade identifies the obsessive way in which Miller, like several writers of his generation, sought artistic authenticity in deprivation, poverty and insufficiency.

The George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London went on to salute Miller's achievement in his famous essay sequence, Inside the Whale, an examination of the soul of the artist in reduced circumstances.

Orwell and Miller were not exceptions. In the 30s they were just the most visible of a tribe of literary nomads going back to the Robert Louis Stevenson of Travels With a Donkey, including the Graham Greene of The Lawless Roads, and going forward to Jack Kerouac (On the Road; The Dharma Bums).

Where are the nomads now? Today, if a writer gets his or her shoes dirty, it's as likely to be crossing a muddy field at the Hay festival, or getting caught in a tropical downpour in Galle or Jaipur. Whatever happened to the avant garde?

 

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