In an age of autofiction, lived experiences and hyperlocal narratives, some feel that Salman Rushdie’s novels are the literary equivalent of 1980s long-hair, oversized-shoulder-pads and head-to-toe sequinned outfits.

A good way to start assessing such judgements is by moving hastily away from fashion metaphors and turning to literary eras for context. The 1980s were recently called a Golden Age for British fiction by John Walsh, former literary editor of the Sunday Times. The best novels of the period, he says, were “by turns violent, tender, vulgar, rapturous, cerebral, argumentative, seductive, hilarious, and obscene”. Among the authors who came to the fore were Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, and Salman Rushdie.

These writers are often clubbed together to represent the period, despite their distinguishing characteristics. However, Rushdie’s work clearly stood apart from the rest, at that time and later. Take his linguistic dexterity and “chutnification” of English; his use of magic realism in writing about the Indian subcontinent; and his carnivalesque treatment of politics and religion.

The fabulous and the real

The qualities that felt striking and vibrant then are seen by some nowadays as tired and unappealing. Rushdie, they say, is over-ambitious and hyperbolic. One reviewer wrote that his novels are increasingly “wonder-filled and windy”. They feel “talky, infelicitous and banal”, with no real humans wandering through them. (To which the narrator of Shame would say: “Realism can break a writer’s heart.”)

Such critics have bemoaned a decline of literary merit in his work, perhaps arising from their preconceived notions of what fiction should contain nowadays. Certainly there are notable exceptions, but many acclaimed novels in English today are personal sagas with limited stylistic palettes.

Rushdie himself is not unaware of this. “Serious fiction has turned toward realism of the Elena Ferrante and Knausgaard kind,” he wrote in a recent essay, “fiction that asks us to believe that it comes from a place very close to if not identical to the author’s personal experience and away, so to speak, from magic”. He prefers to walk down the path illuminated by “wonder tale traditions” in the manner of Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Such writers, says Rushdie, inject “the fabulous into the real to make it more vivid and, strangely, more truthful”. This can be traced further back, from oral narratives to the One Thousand and One Nights to the Kathasaritsagara.

Explicitly political

In his novels, Rushdie has also been charged with letting the political overtake the personal. Susan Sontag once said that “virtually every ambitious novel is at least implicitly political, and most are explicitly so”; Rushdie squarely belongs to the camp of the explicit, made clear when he yoked the fate of India to that of his midnight’s child.

In that work, Indira Gandhi is satirised as “the Widow”; in Shame, a character thought to be modelled on Benazir Bhutto is referred to as “the Virgin Ironpants”; and though The Satanic Verses is most known for its treatment of Islam, it also features the depredations of a certain “Margaret Torture”. More recently, a Trump-like presidential candidate in The Golden House is called the Joker, a “green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”.

All this is delivered with an extra-strong blend of mythological and cultural references, shot through with subversive takes on the value of religion and the meaning of history. Beneath this is a serious investigation into the power of narratives, how they are shaped, and what happens when they cross borders. His novels explore whether, as the American diplomat from Shalimar the Clown says, “the inevitable triumph of illusion over reality…was the single most obvious truth about the history of the human race”.

For Rushdie, negotiations with notions of home and faith mean showing how “our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual discrete”. Thus, The Enchantress of Florence blends Fatehpur Sikri with the Italian Renaissance; The Ground Beneath Her Feet introduces Greek mythology to rock-n-roll; and Quichotte takes Don Quixote on an American road trip. Few other contemporary novelists in English go for broke in this way, which inevitably leads to varying degrees of success.

That this approach has landed him in hot water – boiling, actually – is too well-known to bear repetition here. Perhaps the narrator of Shame was prescient when he, tongue near cheek, said: “ I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either.”

The literary wheel may be turning again. In a recent interview with The Hindu about her new novel, Best of Friends, Kamila Shamsie said that when she was asked why politics comes into all her novels, her reply was that “it’s part of the fabric of life”. Look also at the recognition given to Daisy Rockwell’s English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, a novel unafraid to be digressive, fantastical and political. Then again, Ali Smith – in an entirely different mode from Rushdie, despite a shared fondness for wordplay – has written squarely about Brexit and beyond in her recent state-of-the-nation quartet.

These are reflections of a changing age. As Rushdie wrote in Imaginary Homelands: “…particularly at times when the State takes reality into its own hands, and sets about distorting it, altering the past to fit its present needs, then the making of the alternative realities of art, including the novel of memory, becomes politicised.”

It’s certainly not the case that there should only be one type of novel. Fiction is a broad church, and the point is not to privilege one mode over the other. Listen to the words of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children: “And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!”