Sunday, June 20, 2010

Events, boy, events

It’s dangerous starting a blog post on a train – as chances are you’ll be cut off in your prime. The “cloud” is fine as a play to store our digital debris, but as a real time replacement for the computing power in our hands it’s not there yet. My first PC, a Dan 486, cost north of a grand, and I wore it into the ground within three years, only the last bit of which I had the internet on. It seemed a remarkable machine compared with the 2nd hand Apricot I’d written my first novel on, if only because it had an integral hard drive. Somehow, this technology, which can now be found at the heart of every tiny USB storage device, seemed to make a remarkable difference to our productivity. You switched off the computer, and, on switching it on again, your work was still there. This was 1994, not some ancient past.

So, a computer once could exist without the internet of course, yet I feel almost incapable of using one now, when it’s not connected. The next generation portable devices – iPad, Streak, ebook reader etc. – all have myriad connectivity options, but we’ve become nodes in a network – or at least, our outer-self, that collaborative, communicative, networked, human interaction that is, outside of hermits and loners, so much what we are, now comes requiring electricity and a connection – not to the world – but to other connections.

In our newly acquired nodal state we are not yet our machines, but we are, I think, visioning ourselves as “lesser”, when we haven’t those machines. The ease in which we write, communicate and publish are new. The act as well as the content of writing used to have cost and meaning. These days, much less so. Our future historians will have a treasure trove of content to take from, but will they able to make much of it? Anyone who works in a large corporation knows that the majority of data, is now machine, not human generated. Everything from our email signatures, to our payslips, happen without as much as a casting eye.

Elsewhere in the world, these luxuries are not yet there, and I sometimes think that like the gatherers in Golding’s “The Inheritors” we might yet be superceded; Visigoths at the gate. Martin Amis, speaking in Paris, questions Britain’s role in the world. He finds it difficult to get involved in politics, as he sees them as low in meaning, representing our diminished standing. In a wide-ranging article in last week’s Guardian, Geoff Dyer talks about how it is non-fiction that is describing our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not fiction writers.

Amis has always been happiest (and wrote better) under some cloud of existential dread or on feeling he is at a revolutionary point in history. For the west, most of us are as connected to such large forces as war and terrorism, as David Foster Wallace predicted a few years ago, in a signature essay, where he sees the future writer getting our inspiration second-hand from television and other media. In the age of professional armies it is no surprise that it is professional (embedded) journalists who might write the definitive first person accounts of stories in foreign places. Besides, a journalist now is no longer a neutral observer, but as likely to be a targeted combatant. The number of dead journalists in Iraq is shocking. If we see the Second World War through Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut, it’s worth recalling that they were returning soldiers from conscript armies. Many novels and poems lie dead and unwritten in the battlefields of Europe.

But isn’t this talk about “big events” a return to the arguments that belittled women’s fiction as being “domestic”, or prefers a history of “great men?” Not to refute Dyer’s article (it is more specific and nuanced than that) but what I know about the Belgian Congo, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic or Irish independence, comes from novels; Kingsolver, Diaz and Barry respectively. However, none of these subjects were ones that mattered to me, or I was part of; it was the writer and writing that made them matter.

Yet the events of our time are important; and they have literary importance; yet a fiction not experienced is less of a draw, somehow, than one where the author has some intimate connection. “Money” and “London Fields” are so good because of Amis’s fascination with both the decadence of the 80s, and it’s apparent counterpoint, impending nuclear disaster. It’s surprising to me that there are so few novels that have looked back at 1968 in any real and meaningful way. It seems that a generational shift happened then, which legitimised a certain kind of radical protest, yet artistic statements looking back on that time seem piecemeal unsatisfactory. Christopher Ecclestone will play John Lennon in a BBC 4 drama this week, Amsterdam Hilton, Yoko One and all. I think it will be an interesting period piece. There are few books (novels or otherwise) that have the power and ambition to follow through actual, real consequences as does Roth’s masterpiece, “American Pastoral.”

The novels of our 21st century crises surely cannot use the Twin Towers as much more than a backdrop, because we weren’t there. I can imagine a contemporary Iraqui-written novel that could do much more. Though whether writing ever flourishes in a warzone is a matter for discussion. I’ve just been reading Coetzee’s “Summertime” and one of it’s aims, I think, is to talk about a period and place – South Africa in the mid-1970s – which, given the momentous history that followed, may seem an irrelevance. Not all of us are there at the great points in history – some of us live our lives in the times in between. I’ve recently written a poem about what I perceive are my generation – now in their early forties – too young for punk, too old for acid house – we watch “24 Hour Party People” vicariously, having not lived close enough to that flame.

I am spending this week amongst writers, listening to writers, talking to writers. Our theme is the “education of the imagination” and I’m pleased that at least one of the sessions covers the political. In a week of an austerity budget; at a time when ideology seems redundant, and political ambition is stilted, I sense that literature clusters around large events because it makes it easier to explain literature’s relevance. Yet it is life, our own place in our shared histories, and the ongoing narrative which in reality absorbs the writer. A writer can be present at the fall of the Berlin Wall, but if he doesn’t understand that wider narrative, what, one wonders, has he been doing?


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Anonymous said...

'at a time when ideology seems redundant, and political ambition is stilted'

I suppose you mean at a time when your own ideology seems redundant and your political ambitions are stilted.

For some of us the new Tory government means that our ideology is not redundant and our political hopes are raised. Much less public money spent on cosy middle class jobs in 'the arts' wouldn't be a bad idea. There are more urgent uses for the cash.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Neither the coalition government or the outgoing Labour government appear to have a coherent or relevant ideology at present - and the new government's political ambition seems, at best, reductionist. Part of that, may well be a cutting of the arts, alongside many other things. Yet, if you listened to Jeremy Hunt or Ed Vaizey before the election, neither of them shared your view of the arts as being unimportant - indeed, the Conservative party has said some useful things on the subject - albeit without much clarity how "private sector money" will replace public money. Much of the arts council's emergency spending over the next year (it's "Sustain" fund) was to replace the fall off in private sector sponsorship, as a result of the recession. The money spent on the arts is relatively small, particularly compared with the economic benefits much of it brings. Odd that you should be reading a literary blog, with those thoughts.