Trouble In The Message Centre

Something of a stir on Twitter about this Zoe Williams article, titled: ‘No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?’ That’s obviously a question for John Rentoul (and Williams may not have written the headline). But get past the main hook, and the house style – a kind of hysterical smugness – and there are some good points here.

Williams has spoken to the writer John Lanchester, who spent years researching a novel about the credit crisis and got so interested in the research that he wrote a non-fiction book about finance. In an interview with Williams, Lanchester said:

I felt, and still feel, that the gap between people who speak money and people who don’t is actually a democratic deficit… In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that’s not literary enough.

Writer and playwright Damian Barr added:

There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn’t have to be informed, and it doesn’t have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter. 

These are statements of how things are, nothing more, and the negative reaction from the literary community on social networks proves the point. It’s a truism that in terms of plot, characterisation and storytelling you are better off ordering a HBO boxset than a broadsheet-recommended novel. The Wire in synopsis reads like a dull sociological essay, but it had more depth, humanity and emotion than a decade of Booker shortlists. Beginning a US science fiction series, Salman Rushdie said that: ‘In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.’

Over here, ITV has just screened series two of Downton Abbey, a bowdlerised and silly version of Edwardian England. Its creator, Julian Fellowes (or ‘Julian Kitchener-Fellowes’ to give the man his full title) has been ennobled by the Tory-led government, and now sits on the Conservative benches as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. At the notorious Black and White Ball internship auction, Fellowes donated a day’s work as an unpaid extra on the show, won at a bid of £25,000. It’s impossible to resist the vulgar-Marxist conclusions here. Never mind that the cabinet of millionaires is driving your economy off a cliff! Here is costume drama! Five hundred channels of it!

The literary world is as obsessed with the past as TV commissioners. The past is safe. ‘Everyone expected Alan Hollinghurst to write the definitive book of our recent past, since that’s what he did for the 1980s, in The Line of Beauty,’ Williams notes. ‘Instead, to use a technical publisher’s term, he ‘did an Atonement’ – this is where you re-site your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political.’ Scope is restricted to historical novels. Williams paraphrases the Kelman line that ninety five per cent of fictional characters are independently wealthy. They also tend to be baby boomers. You’re unlikely to find characters born from 1980, let alone 1990. Fiction set in the present day tends to play out a narrow focus on an individual, a couple or a family, with so little sense of time and place that the characters may as well be disembodied floating brains.

So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke.  Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: ‘a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.’ Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.

Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (‘why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?’) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason. In his review of Josipovici’s critical manifesto, blogger Max Cairnduff provides the following insights:

For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws… This is absolutely critical to everything that follows.

Reactionary modernism doesn’t come more reactionary than this. A literary longing for an illiterate Dark Age.

There are valid criticisms of the Williams piece. You could argue that in times of crisis we need fiction more than ever. Art is not a mirror to the world. There’s nothing wrong with escaping into Downton Abbey or Harry Potter. But the prohibitionist tone of Williams’s critics gets to me. Realist fiction requires exposition that can get in the way of the story, but every writer has to learn the basics of show not tell. Done well, fiction that engages with the world is not mere journalism. You can take reality and turn it into something new and show us things about this reality that we might have missed.

This is particularly true of market crises. Markets run on confidence. Will my family live? Will I be happy? Will I have a home? Where is permanence? Where is truth? The questions tap on the root of the human soul and only fiction can answer them. Jay McInerney wrote Brightness Falls as a dissolving marriage against the backdrop of the 1987 crash. Hunter Thompson always used to quote Faulkner’s line that ‘the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism… and the best journalists have always known this.’

At the end of The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq puts these words in the mouth of a dying artist: ‘I want to give an account of the world… I want simply to give an account of the world‘. I wonder if that is such a dishonourable thing for a novelist to do.

2 Responses to “Trouble In The Message Centre”

  1. marc nash Says:

    Excellent article. There are writers kicking against the tide, but they are being submerged amidst the tsunami of democratic access to publishing deluging the market place. It’s interesting this delicate balance between having quality & cultural gatekeepers and sweeping them away for full democratic access. Neither pole is perhaps ideal, yet right now the market and ergo self-promotion rules the roost. Britain has always seemed to baulk at the political novel since Orwell. In the US, there seems to be one novel every Presidency emerging from inside the Oval Office itself (usually penned ‘anonymously’). In the UK our insiders do it on telly, Francis Urquart, Yes Minister & Armando Inaucci’s work. Pity.

  2. Obscurantism | Infinite Patience Says:

    […] Max Dunbar grants me far more authority than I can actually claim to grant certain people the authority to […]

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