‘The fatal detachment’

Over at Standpoint Nick Cohen asks: wny are writers silent on the fiscal crisis?

No artist is obliged to write a state-of-England novel, but so few wanted to tackle the country that was staring them in the face that the essayist DJ Taylor plausibly complained last year of ‘the fatal detachment of the modern ‘literary’ writer from the society that he or she presumes to reflect’.

Maybe they pull back because they know so little of commerce. Most are from public- sector families. They spent their lives around academia, first as students and then as creative writing or English Lit. teachers. Whenever I meet them, I glumly think that modern authors are the artistic equivalents of Westminster’s political class: narrow professionals with few experiences of life beyond their trade.

It’s true that writers’ lives are more homogenised than they were. Before, writers used to have all kinds of backgrounds and do all kinds of jobs: now, they are generally from the top end of the progressive middle class and have the career arc that Cohen describes. This narrowing of common life experience no doubt underwrites the insularity of contemporary fiction.

It is also true that most writers, myself very much included, know nothing about finance. It’s the stereotype you buy into as an undergraduate: maths versus art, left brain versus right brain, Dionsysus against Apollo. Having said that, the novel I’ve been working on deals with the recession to some extent, but it’s really just a descending note in the background.

Still, Jonathan Coe wrote convincingly about markets in his great 1980s novel What a Carve Up. His anaemic stockbroker Thomas Winshaw loved to claim that banking was ‘the most spiritual of all professions’. The following passage is truer now than Coe could have imagined when he wrote the novel in 1994.

He would quote his favourite statistic: one thousand billion dollars of trading took place on the world’s financial markets every day. Since every transaction involved a two-way deal, this meant that five hundred billion dollars would be changing hands. Did the interviewer know how much of that money derived from real, tangible trade in goods and services? A fraction: ten per cent, maybe less. The rest was all commissions, interest, fees, swaps, futures, options: it was no longer even paper money. It could scarcely be said to exist. In that case (countered the interviewer) surely the whole system was nothing but a castle built on sand. Perhaps, agreed Thomas, smiling: but what a glorious castle it was…

And across the pond, Jay McInerney wove a story of a disintegrating marriage around the great crash of ’87. The resulting novel, Brightness Falls, is probably his greatest achievement. So it can be done.

But think of the lead-in time: at least six months to write a novel, and longer to get it published. Since the Great Crunch has only just happened and isn’t yet over, maybe Cohen just needs to be a bit more patient.



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