I wholly agree with what Tim Lott says in his recent piece for the Independent, where he laments the death of the great English novel and a lack of ambition in contemporary English fiction:
"There are great writers out there," he says. "But none of them are English... English literature has lost touch with an important part of its function: to tell us who we are, where we are going and to help us understand our lives. Until a generation of writers comes along to fulfil this function, and a generation of publishers that will give them a voice, writing will remain as safe and reassuring as a suburban book club..."
What is more shocking is that if it's true more translated fiction is now available in English than, say, ten or fifteen years ago, most of it is of little literary value. There's been a general degradation of taste. We've got used to poor stuff. The parable of the English market is exemplified by Christopher Maclehose's path from the zenith of his Harvill days to his publication of the Stieg Larsson trilogy. This is not to accuse Christopher – far from it – I think he is simply a victim – like the rest of us – of the current market forces.
The market is desperate for bestsellers, not just national, but international hits. No one talks about real literature any more: only about Nielsen BookData figures. Sorry if I repeat myself (see this post or this one for more rants on this subjects), but most of the books that are now part of our canon didn't sell very well (or at all!) when they were conceived or first published. The side effect of the commercialization of writing is the stifling of true talent. Agents will only look for commercial offerings that can be easily packaged for risk-averse publishers – and this is why we have not had a great English novel in the last fifty or sixty years.