In my vlog this week I pose the question: are fiction and non-fiction swapping roles? Given the rise of opinion columns, celebrity news, social media and the hashtag, emotional viewpoints dominate the news media. In novels, by contrast, many readers increasingly seek exhaustively researched period pieces.
Whether there is too much research in fiction (the problem lies more in showing the research, than carrying it out), is a matter of taste. The bigger problem is that there is way too little research in journalism.
The huge popularity of historical fiction, for Wolf Hall and First World War dramas in particular, demonstrates that the human desire for detailed, factual knowledge can be considerable. It’s just worrying that there isn’t the same thirst for what is going on around us, right here, right now. I find this extraordinary. When it comes to the Tudor court of the 1540s or the Somme offensive of 1916 there is an insatiable desire for forensic, factual detail. Yet when it comes to the operation of the European single market or single currency, we seem to prefer to follow the headlines and the most eloquent speech, even though these matters directly affect our households and our prospects.
There is a psychological explanation: history is safe, whereas with current affairs we sometimes have a stake. We may not want the facts of the matter, we just want our side to win. To an extent, this is just human nature. But it never helps to be ignorant, to downplay certain inconvenient truths. Because if you only deal in polemics and hate figures, you can depart too far from reality, with consequences that actually harm your own vested interest.
For example, seven years ago the leading centre-left publication in the UK, The Guardian/Observer, ended the regular column of Simon Caulkin, the only reporter who had provided a detailed, thorough analysis of the failing business model that had led to the financial crisis. Yet at the same time, it offered space to comedians and other showbiz stars, and the political coverage became more strident; anti-Tory, yes, but lacking in substance. At the time that Simon’s column was ended, I orchestrated a protest letter signed by over 100 academics from all over the world, many with impeccable left-wing credentials, many of them bemoaning the replacement of serious content by celebrity news. The Guardian/Observer did not even publish the letter! (Though we did get a mention in the satirical magazine Private Eye).
It is notable that, seven years on, the left in Britain has yet to articulate a coherent alternative business and economic model to the Conservative, neo-liberal approach that hit crisis. So indulging in polemic and neglecting the cold hard facts can harm your interest.
For myself, I write fiction that I hope will entertain, and journalism and non-fiction that is based on research. It doesn’t make me fashionable, but I do think it’s the right way around. If you agree with me, please share this blog.
For a novel and independent look at business journalism, have a look at the new Business Hard Talk website.
For more about me, go to: www.pjwhiteley.co.uk