American academic Ben Yagoda, writing in Memoir: A History last year, offered a provocative explanation of the slump in sales of the literary novel. "Fiction has become a bit like a painting in the age of photography" – a novelty item that has its place in high culture and low but is oddly absent in the middle range: "fiction's day is done".
Yagoda, whose book chronicles the rise of contemporary memoir, is not alone in ringing fiction's death knell. In Reality Hunger, David Shields argues that we live in an age of such pervasive narcissism and are so saturated with half- and untruths that imaginative works are rejected for those that promise authenticity. Like Yagoda, he sees the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction growing increasingly fragile. The boom in memoirs, from James Frey's A Million Little Pieces to Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, is equally problematic for Shields. There is no guarantee of authentic experience since "memoir is as far from real life as fiction is". Memory is unreliable, memoirists turn themselves into characters, and this genre rightly belongs to the world of imaginative writing. But does anyone care?
Where the future of fiction lies is in cyberspace, where reading will be increasingly determined by "relationships, links, connections and shar[ing]". Shields has identified a problem that publishers and writers have been slow to grasp; that the rise of web writing, blogging and reality television is having a huge impact on how books are read. For this alone, Reality Hunger is worth more than a passing glance.
But the "manifesto" is maddeningly vague. Shields organises his thoughts as a series of collages, cutting and pasting them into alphabetical sections where the links often seem elusive. The overall effect is strangely shallow, the arguments often undeveloped.
Shields rejects a narrative form to make the job of understanding his ideas easier for a reader, and so bucks a trend that troubles French author Christian Salmon. What seems like an ancient and benign desire to tell a simple story has, according to Salmon, been appropriated by post-capitalism to serve its own ends. Advertising has moved on from the Kodak and Bacardi campaigns beloved of Mad Men, he argues, to inventing narratives that make the message digestible, emotional and bleached of reality. The goal of "storytelling marketing" is not just to persuade consumers to buy but to involve them in a story. Consumption has become a way of relating to the world, so that by your purchases shall you be known.
"Storytelling management" has also seeped into daily working life, silencing the corporate employees who, quite literally, don't buy the narrative. In organisations like the World Bank, Apple, Starbucks, Nokia and Google, traditional communication methods are ditched for the circulation of simple stories freighted with meaning. What's lost is rational argument and critical analysis. Enron, according to Salmon, is a vivid example of this intellectual deterioration. Its CEOs made the narrative bluff that Washington politicians and Wall Street analysts would be unable to distinguish between fiction and reality.
Storytelling, that lovely exchange of ideas you have with your children at bedtime, has become a means for corporations to police behaviour and teach people to accept the need for change, even against their own interests. There are big issues here about the ability of voters, consumers and readers to question what lies behind the seemingly benign "story". Unlike Shields's cut-and-paste job, Salmon draws together his arguments into a coherent and chilling whole.