Since it was well after 11 pm when I tuned in, I feared I might have missed the Turner Prize ceremony, but evidently I had not. For there on screen was the most chillingly satirical installation piece you could wish for, a portrayal of the British art world with the title, "Is Painting Dead?". It took the form of a "discussion", by turns hilarious and surreal, among a group of grotesquely lampooned "art commissars", some vaguely identifiable. One man bore a resemblance to Sir Norman Rosenthal, the eminent boss of the Royal Academy, but had been transformed (with some satirical intent, presumably) into a figure of Petronian decadence, both cheeks emblazoned with lipstick kisses. Another figure looked as if it might once have been Roger Scruton, the distinguished philosopher, but it too had been humorously adjusted to resemble a dandified cadaver in a marmalade fright wig and a wing collar. A growly Burl Ives wannabe with a beard did a passable impersonation of David Sylvester, but the only really lifelike one was Waldemar Januszczak, late of the Late Show. A vision of stroppy art-college-debating-society contentiousness in a yellow bow-tie, he was just like the real thing.
And then there was the Tracey Emin figure. This was a puzzle. One knows that the real Ms Emin is a warm and clever artist with a sense of humour (for one of her exhibits, she embroidered the names of her past lovers into the fabric of a tent) but how could you square this with the apparition that appeared on screen? It was muttering and mumbling and giggling to itself while the others were talking, and it was clearly, how shall I put this, as pissed as a parrot. But as the discussion went on, you got the impression the whole thing had being conceived on a tidal wave of alcohol.
The "art critics" acted up for the camera in a way I found, frankly, over the top. I mean nobody talks like that, do they? "They're so of their time, they transcend their time," said Norman Rosenthal about some pictures. Scruton said petulantly that "video art doesn't share in transcendence", and Januszczak snarled, "Yeah, but does art have to be transcendent?" in his best sixth-form manner. Richard Cork, immaculate and aloof, intoned things like, "Of course we're still learning about photography...".
But then the true, self-detonating nature of the whole piece was revealed when Tracey Emin suddenly exploded. Her plastered mutterings having been politely ignored for some minutes, she suddenly said, "I'm going now. I've had a nice evening with my friends. I'm drunk. My Mum won't like this, but I don't give a ****," and tore the microphone off the front of her dress. "I don't give a toss about any of this lot, but I think he's really lovely," she yelped in conclusion, pointing dramatically towards Januszczak who grinned broadly as if he'd won a prize. But sadly, it seemed Ms Emin was pointing at the cameraman behind him ...
It was brilliant television. It was, indeed, a work of art. Whatever actually won the Turner Prize, this well-sustained satire of arty self- absorption was worth pounds 20,000 of anyone's money.
All over literary London, people are busily reading, or claiming to read, Don DeLillo's massive new novel Underworld, a fictional panorama of America in the Cold War years. It has become the big You-should-have- read-it-by-now choice of the Christmas period. Even though it's not actually published until 9 January, the more determinedly a la page of bookish commentators are singing its praises in the Books of the Year (that's 1997) features that now festoon every weekend newspaper.
I'm sure the book is a work of genius, but you can't help feeling all these early critics, queueing up importantly to declare it a masterpiece, are behaving as though they've somehow invented Mr DeLillo and his book, and are congratulating themselves on their excellent taste in doing so. Even if you haven't read all that much: "I'm halfway through Don DeLillo's Underworld," ran one of the Books of 1997 offerings in The Observer, "and on the basis of what I've read so far, it feels safe to predict...". (Love that word "safe"). But then, partial reviews of unfeasibly large talent is something DeLillo has come to expect from his critics at home, judging by the American notices that have greeted his 832-page doorstop: "Underworld is full of sentences that capture, with the choice of the odd word, a moment in American history" said one. "He captures the drift of the end- of-century life in words, one bright shining sentence after another" said Elle. (So that's how you write prose.) Some kind of consensus seemed to be nigh, and the Voice Literary Supplement came out and said it, plain and simple: "Don DeLillo is now the best writer of sentences in America".
Now there's a critical trope worth remembering. Faced with a difficult 800-page novel, don't try to review it as a novel, but as a succession of sentences. As you might say, "Frank Sinatra sang `Strangers in the Night'. It contained some extremely fine notes, one after the other" or "The Berlin Philharmonic performed Mahler's first symphony last night, with some shining violin bits followed by some wonderful oboe bits".
But can they be onto something? Can there be a new critical hierarchy abroad, now that the idea of "good fiction" has become divorced from the idea of "good writing"? Can we divide literature into constituent parts, and offer prizes for them, like Hollywood's technical Oscars? Will we get Best Footnote Writer in A Biography? Best Indexer in a Russian History? Best Humorous Caption Writer in a Political Memoir? Or shall we be serious about it? If I were to say that Salman Rushdie writes the best pages in the modern novel, Martin Amis writes the best paragraphs and Iain Sinclair writes the best sentences ... There now. What do you think?