Every journalist yearns to write a novel. Trouble is, now every politician, supermodel and stand-up comic does, too. Spare us the fiction fetish, says Boyd Tonkin. The best new writing sticks to the facts
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Monday 21 July 1997
If only that story still rang true. If only journalists really did let that half-finished manuscript languish in the bottom drawer. If only chat- show hosts stuck to prime-time flattery, politicians to hot air and supermodels to the catwalk. Not any more. These days, any wannabe celebrity worth a single flashbulb feels the need to try their hand at fiction. Meanwhile, talented writers in other fields - reportage, memoirs, biography, travel - suffer an ache of inferiority unless they have a stab at what DH Lawrence once called "the great bright book of life" - the novel.
The outcome is a culture that makes a fetish of fiction at the same time that it undervalues authors whose gifts lie elsewhere. But fiction is fatally easy to do badly; grinding difficult to do well. I doubt whether a quarter of the 4,986 novelists who published new work in the UK in 1996 had any real aptitude for the art. The rest should remember that the House of Fiction is not the only address on Literature Street.
Yet it's not hard to see why the novel has become a sort of default-setting for all literary ambition. People understand how novels work. The media knows how to package and promote them. For clapped-out politicians with shattered majorities or comedians with TV ratings on the slide, nothing pushes you back into the limelight faster than a little light fiction.
At least when the supermodel Naomi Campbell published a blockbuster about the fashion scene, she took the precaution of having it written by a competent ghost called Caroline Upcher. So Naomi Campbell's Swan became branded merchandise, rather like Ralph Lauren's Polo. After all, no one seriously imagines that Mr Lauren spends his days sniffing potions in the lab.
More annoying are those bona fide writers who turn to fiction to prove they can do it, much as they might try to climb an Alp or run a marathon. Clive James had already proved himself as a scintillating critic and a witty autobiographer. But his recent novels suffer from odd slabs of journalistic detail that might work better as essays or travel pieces. As for Michael Ignatieff, he took refuge from political thought with a soppy Russian saga, Asya, that owed more to Mills & Boon than John Stuart Mill. His second novel did show a drastic improvement - but it sounded much more like a memoir.
Among the pack of recent books by entertainers-turned-novelists, Ben Elton's Popcorn is the sole example to justify its wood-pulp. The others should have stuck to the day - or rather, the night - job. One wonders how some of these amateurs would feel if real novelists started to muscle in on their patch. Saul Bellow doesn't do stand-up. Anthony Powell refrains from guest appearances in sitcoms. The 10-year-old Martin Amis displayed some alarming child-star pouts in the film of High Wind in Jamaica, but he did give up the silver screen after that.
It would help if the full-time stars of stage, screen, Parliament and pitch exercised the same restraint when it came to fiction. They should follow like seagulls in the wake of Eric Cantona. In spite of artistic bent, the departing sage of Old Trafford shows no signs of attempting a novel. Don't let us down, Eric.
The flipside of this cult of fiction is that good writing in other areas holds a second-class citizenship in the Republic of Letters. Yet look at the record of the past few decades, and you find much surer signs of a Golden Age in the the forms that don't depend on imaginary characters and plots.
Biography has boomed since modern masters such as Richard Ellmann and Michael Holroyd brought it back to life. Popular science rides high in sales and esteem with its brief histories of life, the universe and everything. Travel writing has ventured into new territory after Bruce Chatwin. And gripping memoirs have made millions of readers care about themes as diverse as China's Cultural Revolution - in Jung Chang's Wild Swans - and Arsenal's league fortunes - in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch.
Even unfashionable genres such as political economy can now reach a wide public again. When Will Hutton wrote his radical tract The State We're In, his publishers expected sales of 3,000 or so. Within a few weeks, the hardback had sold a dozen times that figure. Meanwhile, reader-friendly narrative histories, such as Europe by Norman Davies, walk off the shelves in their thousands.
Yet still we treat fiction as the sole thermometer of cultural health. A couple of below-par Booker Prize shortlists, and the doomsayers come out for a good lament. They should stop fretting and ask instead why it is that non-fiction has blossomed so in recent years.
In history, the tragic and heroic stories of our time can now be told without the blinkers of the Cold War and its rival ideologies. In science, breakthroughs in theory and technology have created a hunger for new maps and signposts to the cosmos and the mind. In autobiography, rapid recent shifts in family and social life have prompted the quest for a new sense of selfhood.
First-class writers in any of these genres have no reason to think of themselves as poor relations to the Mighty Novel. To succeed, they have to marshall all the qualities of insight, imagination and construction that a fine novelist deploys. And it may even be that non-fiction can now react faster to the pace of social change. Unlike mainstream realistic novels, it need not rely on conventions handed down from a vanished world of belief and behaviour.
Others have suspected that fiction may have problems in adjusting to the modern world. A quarter of a century ago, the stylish American reporter Tom Wolfe - known for his snappy suits and snappier prose - wrote a famous essay in praise of what he dubbed the "New Journalism". American literary novelists, said Wolfe, had declined into a sad bunch of navel-gazing deadbeats. They sat around inspecting their angst while a vigorous culture of pop and protest exploded around them.
For Wolfe, it was the new breed of hip and sassy reporters who had really caught the tenor of their times. Fair enough. Who wouldn't rather read Wolfe's enthralling book about the Apollo astronauts, The Right Stuff, than 90 per cent of earnest US fiction from that period? And does any reader actually prefer Norman Mailer's indigestible novel about the Pharaohs' Egypt, Ancient Evenings, to his brilliant true-life tale of the murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song?
Yet this story, as you probably recall, has a sting in the tail. A decade later, Tom Wolfe broke his own code. He committed a novel. And it was an absolute triumph. Bonfire of the Vanities married the satirical punch of his reporting with a Dickensian sweep and fizz that gave Wolfe the last word on the excesses of the yuppie Eighties.
Yes, a good novel can reach heights that make even the finest non-fiction look pretty mean. Because of that, achieving one has more in common with performing open-heart surgery than with riding a bicycle. Fiction is a formidable craft. It can enrich readers' lives or - if it goes awry - it can waste a lot of their precious time. It's not a clever knack that any bright spark can pick up as they go along. By all means, write that novel if you truly believe what you have to say can take no other shape. If not, just remember that fact can be stronger, as well as stranger, than fictionn
This article is based on an item broadcast on Radio 3's `Night Waves' programme.
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