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In an age of downward mobility, can the upbeat novel survive?

In the updated introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson attributes the success of her first novel to the mid-eighties fashion for coloured underpants. At the age of 24, nearly penniless and living in London, she couldn't have afforded a separate white wash at the laundromat had she needed one. And grey, unbleached underwear, she believes, would have nullified her ability to produce what is now considered a seminal work of literary fiction.

"Dinginess is death to the writer," she explains. "Filth, discomfort, hunger, cold, trauma and drama don't matter a bit. I have had plenty of each but they have only encouraged me, but dinginess, the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible."

This is quintessential Winterson. Her tendency to romanticize the beleaguered artist waging war against all that is dull and impoverished is what's made her an enduring literary hero for tortured undergraduates. In her first novel, Winterston told the semi-autobiographical story of growing up adopted, poor, Pentecostal and gay in small-town England. She has now backed up that partially fictional account with a new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?

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Winterston's childhood experience was one of poverty in every sense of the word – financially, emotionally, socially and intellectually. There was not enough money, food, pleasure or love to go around. Any she did manage to find (in the form of books, lovers and, finally, an Oxford education) came entirely of her own volition.

It's a familiar narrative – that of the resourceful protagonist who triumphs over adversity – and one that's been around at least as long as the novel itself. Think of characters from Charles Dickens's Pip to Mordecai Richler's Duddy Kravitz.

But what struck me reading Winterston this week was how different that narrative feels now that we've entered a new age of austerity – one in which quality of life, at least in basic material terms, is not likely to improve in the West for the next generation (and quite possibly much longer). The postwar trend of each generation besting its predecessor, becoming richer, smarter and, by extension, happier than the one before, appears to be coming to a close in our neck of the woods.

So where does this leave our literature? How do we tell stories about the triumph of the human spirit when social mobility has stagnated, when everything is not necessarily going to get better and better and better still?

Perhaps we don't.

This week, I had the pleasure of posing that question to Charles Foran, the novelist, memoirist and, most recently, Richler's biographer. In Foran's view, the days of Western cultural ascendance are over, and with this decline comes what he described to me by e-mail as "a natural waning of the novel of social climbing, of upward mobility for the (often) kids of immigrants."

Richler and his contemporaries, most notably Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, were part of a generation of North American Jewish authors who were, as Foran points out, "collectively pushing their way into mainstream society, without apologies. That push is, in effect, done, and now writers like them are free to contemplate the leeward side of the slope, so to speak."

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But if the West is no longer on the cultural ascent, does that mean people will stop craving triumphant narratives? Or as Foran puts it, "Will they still want them, regardless of whether they're fundamental to how our society is evolving?"

Recent research on human behaviour suggests we will. A consumer study conducted at Harvard University last year found that – at least when it comes to selecting brands, or identifying with corporations – people across countries, cultures and history favour underdog narratives. According to London-based neuroscientist Tali Sharot, we're also hardwired for positivity. In her book The Optimism Bias, she argues that the unshakeable belief that the future will be a marked improvement on the past (tomorrow is another day!) is fundamental to human survival and, again, exists across races, regions and socioeconomic brackets.

We crave stories of individual triumph even when those narratives are no longer culturally relevant – but great writers will always try to reflect the truth, even if it happens to be unpalatable. Duddy Kravitz and his ilk may have inspired a generation of upwardly mobile young go-getters, but most readers today likely have more in common with Jonathan Franzen's anxiously overeducated, underemployed Chip Lambert of The Corrections.

Writers like Franzen, or, say, Jeffrey Eugenides offer a more searching, elegiac, if not totally cynical view. Even Winterson's memoir, which tells her childhood story according to an old narrative formula, is suitably jaundiced in her view of the present (most specifically, her difficulty in loving and being loved, as the result of childhood trauma).

My pen pal Foran isn't entirely convinced these new stories, interesting as they are, have the power to stick, even if they're true.

"These aren't the nation-building, myth-enriching narratives that America has long wanted, and demanded, of its artists," he says, "They are bitter literary pills, and maybe aren't likely going to be swallowed so happily."

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The consolation, if you will excuse my compulsive need to look on the bright side, is that stories of struggle and individual triumph will continue to delight us on a visceral level even if they are no longer culturally relevant. And when willful blindness fails us, we can always look further, for a glimpse of cold, hard literary truth.

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