Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Crash

It's 80 years since the Wall Street Crash and, because of our recent travails, Newsnight and Newsnight Review ran a programme on it last night. Worth catching on the iPlayer. Newsnight Review asked the question about how art would respond to the credit crunch. After all, from books like "The Grapes of Wrath", to songs like "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" the crash of 1929 went into artistic as well as economic history. The panel was heavily American-focused, and concentrated a little too much on a film few have yet seen, Michael Moore's "Capitalism: a Love story."

What annoyed me about the programme was the assumption that this credit crunch is inevitably a subject for an author or film maker to grapple with. Perhaps the example of 9/11, whose spectre has inhabited the insides of lots of bad novels (and a few decent ones), this decade has made the world expect the instant rebuttal system of a political party, rather than the measured reflection of a writer. But there's something else...I've yet to see the consequences of this recession in the way that the recessions of the eighties still burn into my mind. Rather, I'm still seeing the consequences of the "boom", the ridiculous house prices, the unsuitable inner city apartments, the valuing of economic growth above all other values, the targets culture of the public sector. And, guess what? I've been writing about these pretty much constantly for the last ten years. Not that you'd know this - as getting a London-based publisher interested in anything with an anti-capitalist hue to it has been almost impossible. Newsnight interviewed some improbably named chick litter, drinking cocktails on a manhattan balcony, talking about her book about downsizing Hedge Fund wives.

You realise that the literature of the decade has been an odd mix of champagne froth and misery memoir, with serious writers stepping back into history as they look on dumb founded on the contemporary world uninterested in it, or unable to understand it. In 1998 I was writing about a Capitalism that was a pyramid scheme of false information, overexpectation and short-term gains, as a character built up a company purely to float it on the stock exchange, its product as ephemeral as anything Enron gave us. In one scene a group of protestors from a northern industrial company try and disrupt a product launch, as their own factory is been closed down.

The writing about the American thirties concentrated on the economic tsunami that swept through the nation, not on the billionaires who'd had to lose a few zeroes off their income. In my essay "Writing Catastrophe" earlier this year I talked about the tendency for post-apocalyptic scenarios in contemporary literature, a view echoed in the programme, but questioned whether this particular crash would lead to a novel like "Bonfire of the Vanities." I'm still questioning. A book like "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill captured some of the post 9/11 angst of New York, but the victims of the Madoff fraud will have their safety nets and their story, one driven by greed, hardly makes them interesting case studies.

The real tragedies of this recession will be elsewhere, in the council estates and poorly built housing, in the broken marriages and errant children - and more than that, in the aftermath, if a dozen years of progressive politics gets sweeped away because it wasn't progressive enough, because it believed that the market was self-correcting.

Writers can't just take on those subjects like a new set of clothes, particularly if their fascinations have been the millionaire class. The writers on Newsnight review were more circumspect than the film makers and internet editors - suggesting that it takes time to make this your story. Only Jay McInerney, who had already written twice about the glittering world of the New York rich in Brightness Falls and the Good Life, is preparing his next one to include much of this material, but its always been his territory. I think it was Simon Schama who added that there also an alternative narrative to the thirties, the promises of socialism. Our skies may not be as dark with Nazism as they were back then, for which we have to be grateful, but neither are they as light with promise.

There's a nostalgic tendency to British fiction that precludes a more immediate response to issues of the day. There's not a writer like McInerney or Easton Ellis who is alert to the zeitgeist and can simply adjust their latest writing to match it. I'd say that the more interesting responses are likely to be found through allegory or story. A writer like China Mieville, with radical politics to match his radical writing, knows fully well that a critique of our current systems would be more a fantasy set in contemporary London, than set in one of his parallel worlds. With the internet providing the "instant response" button that we require to current events, the writer's job here, doesn't seem to change. All I can hope is that those of us who can and do write about contemporary issues, may become a little more noticeable than we have over the last few years. In a 2006 poem called "Mean Time", I asked the question "What is the central act of our time?" Lamport Court, where it was published, is now online at the Poetry Archive where you can read this and other work.


coolana said...

The song is 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?' - my mother used to sing it - and 'Brother can I lend a dime' is grammatically incorrect - borrow? Sorry to be so snippy, but if you're going to write, make an effort to do it right - and focussed? Really? The word is misspelt repeatedly - there is no double s. Now I'll read the rest of your blog - even though it's made me disgruntled - probably more my problem than yours.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks. I've amended.

coolana said...

...and I've ammended my picky mood. In the wee small hours of the morning mustn't be my comfort zone. Glad to be of help.