No. 21

The Incredible Loudness of Bleating

STONE the crows! What whingers these authors be! That people ignore the Miles Franklin Literary Award upsets Alex Miller, who has won it twice and is nominated again this year. It is, he said last week, the fault of the Prime Minister, whom he called “Rudd the dud” – original sort of bloke Mr Miller. And the PM’s offence? Establishing a book award of his own – which carries more cash.

Peter Carey, who has won all manner of awards, is also aggrieved. Last week he told a New York audience how extraordinary it is that we accept the “population generally” does not read “great literature”. He added that knowing his name was a sign of being literate, marking him as modest as Mr Miller is amusing.

They both should get a grip and accept that not everybody is interested in what they think. Nor cares what is happening to their craft – which is not much.

The novel, once a universal creative form with the most mass of mass market appeal, is turning into an obscure art. At the top end – where Carey and Miller work – fiction is going the way of opera, adored by adherents and ignored by everybody else to the extent that it increasingly requires state subsidies. And this is precisely what Australian publishers want – demanding and receiving protection from imported books last year. It was the sort of win only businesses out of touch with the realities of the market would welcome – “people want to pay less for books so we need to make sure they can’t”.

At the other end of the market publishers dream (in the greediest parts of their secret hearts) of fiction to found a franchise, a series of books, followed by films – and then games. Wizards were good, now its teen vampires in love, but zombie hunters are the next big thing.

Both strategies make sense to writers and publishers but they can’t disguise or delay the obvious – the novel is as relevant to most readers as counter tenors are to Justin Bieber fans.

This is not an outcome to endorse, the decline of the novel is unsettling for anyone who grew up assuming it was, and would always remain, a high art form that appealed to a mass-ish market. But times have changed and no amount of name-calling or self-obsession will change them back.

The novel’s long run has been slowing for a century as films and then serial fiction in the form of broadcast drama first took its audience and is now seizing its status.

This is no bad thing for serious story telling – we are in a golden age of at least American fiction, thanks to HBO and its competitors.

The West Wing is perhaps the best political saga since The Pallisers (the characters are certainly more credible). The Wire does for Baltimore at the end of the 20th century what Dickens did for London in the middle of the 19th. And Deadwood combines a saga of village life while explaining why Hobbes was wrong, that civil society trumps thuggery in the long run. Add your own favourite series here.

Long-form, video literature is knocking around more art forms than the novel. As cinema retreats into special effects and the broadcast networks lose control of their product to Tivo and Hulu, people watch novels-with-pictures on DVD as readers once consumed chapters of Dickens in magazines, at their own pace and time of choosing. If it is a bad age to be a novelist it is an equally awful one to run a TV network.

Even worse for everybody involved, all these art forms are entertainment for the old. The young now have the means to amuse themselves, turning their lives into an endless, if ordinary, interactive saga of manners on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Facebook claims 400 million active users, half of whom use it on any given day. Communications consultant Laurel Papworth says just under 8 million Australians use Facebook each month and according to the Neilsen ratings organisation we led the world in the time spent on social media sites in December, (nearly seven hours in the month, twice what the supposedly technology-dependent Japanese did).

And when they are not “oh-my-godding” each other, and sharing LOL videos of each other’s hair, social media users play computer-generated games that give them the authority to create characters and shape narratives, imaginative powers that only novelists and filmmakers possessed a generation back.

This is not to compare social media and games to reading novels – which is rather the point. For young people, they replace rather than compete with fiction in the way people spend their spare time.

These screen-based cultures have democratised the power to choose your own adventure and, compared to it, the idea of finely crafted prose that takes concentration to understand cannot cut it. If you don’t believe people are entertaining themselves online, consider the way a Facebook page for (the nonexistent) Kate Miller’s (entirely fictional) party generated 60,000 acceptances, plus a whole set of spin offs last weekend.

This does not mean literary novels are unimportant or that their authors should not have high opinions of themselves. It’s just that the next generation of readers don’t know who these writers are or care what they do.

End of story.

stephen4@hotkey.net.au

'2012