Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 5, 2017

Is being a novelist a profession?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:45 am

A motivation in my turning to fiction after a quarter of a century as a journalist and non-fiction author was noting the comment by the great US author Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

At about the same time, I read her classic novel Beloved. It was a difficult read for me; indeed I imagine for anyone unfamiliar with the southern US dialect, though I have read widely about colonialism, segregation and slavery, which helped me understand the context. The accent was not the only challenge; the narrative switches in time, by many years, with the briefest clue as to when a change had been made. Beloved was a dense and difficult read. It was also poetic, haunting and beautiful. I was glad to have completed it, even though I would have needed a few days’ guidance by an academic to have appreciated all dimensions.

I have followed Toni Morrison’s advice, though not imitated her style (not that I could). The two novels I have had published are accessible, with a recognizable arc and, I’m told, genuinely funny in places.

That does not make me an inverted intellectual snob, however. I strongly defend the role of literature, like that of Morrison, or TS Eliot or James Joyce before, that explores new narrative forms, introduces complex subjects in oblique ways, and that may require interpretation. The world would be a duller place if all literature were accessible and to a format, and we would cease to be learning and growing.

I have long argued, however, that the distinction between literary and popular fiction is valid only at the extremes, when you are comparing Joyce to Jeffrey Archer. In between, there’s a huge grey area. There are many ‘literary’ tomes that are contrived and superficial, and many ‘popular’ authors whose characters touch unexpected depths, in poignant reflection or philosophical musing.

The snobbery towards comedy is particularly bizarre, and would not be recognized by earlier generations. No comedy will ever win the Oscars or the Booker these days, but consider the following historical classics that contain laugh-out loud humour: Don Quixote, Great Expectations, La Peste. Today, everyone has to be unrelentingly grim, especially if one aspires to a short-listing.

This is accompanied by the rise and rise of the creative writing course, including Masters and even a PhD. There is an increasing tendency to view novel-writing as a career like medicine or accountancy, for which one studies a body of knowledge and learns the craft. Literary agents now recruit graduates of such courses, like corporate personnel departments hiring from the business schools.

This makes me uneasy, and not only out of self-interest, given that I am almost entirely self-taught as a novelist. I don’t think literature is directly comparable to a formal profession; it is more akin to being an entrepreneur – many of whom dropped out of school or university. Now, there is much craft to be learned in novel-writing, and much to be gained from formal study, but few creative writing graduates are as poetic or gifted as Toni Morrison, and downplaying the value of the lived experience may be having a stultifying effect.

In recent years, I have read many historical novels, written by authors probably cleverer and certainly more learned than me, but who have spent too long on creative writing courses. The books lacked passion, did not seem to be informed by the lived experience, and the meticulous research was too obviously on display – in one example, some details of the export industry of the 1890s was smuggled unconvincingly into direct speech.

This type of reading experience led me to conclude that the book I wished to read wasn’t being written, so I’d better bloody well do it myself. This would be a book that is contemporary, realistic, with convincing characters, feeling out of place because the narratives they told themselves weren’t working any more, giving rise to major life decisions, well judged or otherwise.

And I wanted my books to be funny. To me, humour and depth are close twins. Another guiding principle is to draw upon extreme emotions that I and people close to me have felt. It’s hard to convey the depths of ecstasy and despair on the basis of library research. Without emotion, how can you engage the reader? Another important theme for me is the importance of, and the inescapability of, personal beliefs.

I am immensely proud to have received a rather better critical reaction than I dared hope for, including a cover quote for my second novel, Marching on Together, from Louis de Bernieres. I continue to receive rejections from agents and literary festivals, but I can now honestly say that the literary credentials of at least one individual who rated my work far outweigh those of the folk who do not. Perhaps I can be generous to myself and conclude that my books are merely unfashionable, rather than lacking in literary merit. And, no, I won’t be signing up to any creative writing classes. I would rather listen to my readers.

April 27, 2017

New beginnings, and life’s journey

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:06 am

A lovely review of Marching on Together is published in Church & Town, the parish magazine of St Andrews, Ampthill, written by Rosie Hughes. I reproduce it below:

Review of Marching on Together

By Rosie Hughes – Having been lucky enough to read an early, pre-publication draft of this book, I was really looking forward to reading the finished article.  I was not disappointed and actually enjoyed the book all the more through having an appreciation of its journey.

A mixed group of six Leeds United supporters set off on a trip to Bruges at the time of the centenary of the Great War.  It is apparent early on that the trip represents very different things to each of them.   Although ostensibly a lads’ drinking weekend, there is the search for great-granddad’s grave on the Western Front, a crucial business meeting with a European contact,  new romantic relationships to be formed and a thirty year old crime to be absolved.

The characters are sensitively drawn and whilst they are Marching on Together, they are on their own private journeys.  There is an underlying theme of family and belonging both in the literal and figurative sense, with the loneliness of one character in particular, Yvonne, being palpable.

The importance of music in the characters’ lives features prominently, but football is the interest than unites the group.  Their love of Leeds United and pride in all things Yorkshire is clearly evident, but you don’t need to be a football fan or from the aforementioned county to appreciate this novel.

The book is very funny in parts, with the characters displaying both dry wit and self-deprecating humour.  There are also key moments of sadness and reflection.

The conclusion represents moving on, new beginnings and life’s continual journey.

A gentle book, to be savoured and contemplated.

From Church & Town. There is more information about St Andrews Church on this link: http://www.standrewsampthill.org/

You can buy Marching on Together at Amazon, just click on this link.

 

April 11, 2017

Why AI will always be dumb

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:18 pm

Robots will replace workers. Yawn. I’ve been reading variants of this storyline since around 1978. Since then, robots have increased in range and sophistication, yet employment levels have still kept going up. Also, during that time, and especially in the last 10-15 years, automated intelligence systems have been making bigger and bigger mistakes, leading directly to the collapse of entire businesses, yet always, in our technophile, misanthropic business culture, escaping all blame, so that technophile, misanthropic futurists can project an even bigger future for artificial intelligence, ignoring the lessons of the recent past, determined to repeat mistakes over and over again, on a bigger and bigger scale. Every time that AI messes up, the wreckage has to be cleared up by humans, which partly explains why employment rates keep on rising.

These ‘futurists’ need stopping. They are dangerous.

How did it come to this? Their misjudgements rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of what intelligence is. Our technophile, misanthropic culture equates intelligence with computation, chronicling with pride, for example, at how the best computers will always beat a grandmaster at chess. This game is perfect for AI: known parameters, known rules, the ability to compute millions of permutations per second.

What a computer cannot do, however, is know how to react if the game is interrupted by a terrorist incident, or to know that a couple searching for their lost toddler is a more important priority than whether or not to move your queen to knight 4. This inability to respond to unexpected events, to know how to react to unknown unknowns, is one of AI’s most serious weaknesses. But there are others: inability to empathize, to value the practical wisdom of an experienced employee, or understand such concepts as family love, hatred or political extremism.

So what were these corporate mistakes, how did they come about, and why where they so damaging? Let’s look at three examples, in chronological order. Familiarize yourself with the thinking errors that caused them, because the pattern is set to be repeated.

MFI in 2003-04

The British furniture retailer had a highly effective decentralized order and delivery system, in which experienced local store managers knew the stock and took care of customer service. This was replaced by a centralized automated system. It started making errors, but the designers had not built in contingency to intervene and correct them (this is a recurring thinking error in design of automated customer service systems; the pretence that machines are infallible). Customer service plummeted, so did reputation and business dried up. The company went into liquidation.

Investment banks 1990s-2008

As part of the lobbying to be allowed to police themselves, investment banks fooled regulators, and themselves, into believing that automated risk management systems were more advanced and sophisticated than experienced human oversight. In order to justify using automated risk management systems, that rest on the Value at Risk model that assumes risk can be quantified, they pretended that market risk was a closed game with known parameters, like chess. They were therefore completely ill-equipped to cope with the asymmetric, unpredictable dynamics of property asset bubbles exploding. Lehman Brothers went bust, and many others had to be rescued by ‘unsophisticated’ politicians and central bankers.

Google 2017

Google, which owns YouTube, was starting to enjoy bumper revenues from online advertising, relatively cheap to administer compared to rival news media organizations that generate their own material. Far cheaper and more advanced to let users produce content, and let algorithms place the ads. In 2017, however, reputable advertisers started to realize that their products were being promoted alongside hate videos by politically extremist organizations. Worse, their money was directly lining the pockets of these toxic groups, directed by YouTube algorithms that generate income based on numbers of views. The advertisers began withdrawing millions of dollars and pounds and redirected them to ‘old-fashioned’ media outlets.

It could be argued that these examples feature poor implementation of AI, and do not necessarily place a question mark over its wider validity. Well yes, but making that point kind of makes my point too: the technophile, misanthropic culture that has plagued the business world for decades, and that has led to such poor implementation, is also steering research priorities and decisions on applications. This means that such mistakes are very likely to recur. Google, for example, still refuses to put human judgement in charge of vetting of politically extreme videos on YouTube. It would rather see its business model damaged, perhaps irreparably, than cease to worship at the altar of AI, which has become akin to a religion.

Of course, it may be the case, some centuries from now, that there will be machines capable of spontaneity, improvisation, sensitivity, empathy and good judgement. But why wait that long, given that we already have entities superbly geared to such areas of expertise? They’re called humans. To refuse to deploy people for what they are best at is profoundly unintelligent. It’s like preferring bottled cow’s milk to mother’s milk for a new-born baby, despite the multiple health benefits of the latter, simply on the grounds that it’s newer.

The bigger problem is that only a small minority of organizations are effective at deploying human intelligence. What you find is that such enlightened entities tend also to be smarter in their use of technology. AI will always be dumb in some areas; humans in others. The best partnerships harness the strengths of both.

March 21, 2017

Yvonne’s tale

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:40 pm

There have been influential books on a football theme in recent decades, most notably Fever Pitch and The Damned United. They share another major factor in common besides the Beautiful Game: almost all the lead characters are men. For my second novel Marching on Together, I decided to make 56-year-old Yvonne Fairclough, a passionate and devoted Leeds United fan all her life, a central character. By wonderful coincidence, on the very day I decided to publish a blog on this theme, the BBC carried a profile of This Fan Girl, a new website portraying women fans at the footy – who are around 25% of fans nowadays (I was warned by publishing types while writing the book that ‘only women read novels and only men follow football’ – clearly the publishing industry needs to update its research).

Challenging gender stereotypes further, Yvonne is at a moment in her life where she fears that her devotion to the club is causing her husband Tony to become estranged from her; and frets over whether it affected her parenting of their only son Michael, who is now grown up rarely returns her calls, and never comes to a match.

I first became aware of a significant rise in the number of female footy fans in the 1990s, when I came across two examples of men going to football matches for the first time, because their daughters asked them to take them along. Although I also vividly recall from a Leeds match in 1974 an extremely witty woman mimicking the terrace chants of the lads – she was clearly a regular, as she knew all the words.

The very first Amazon review of Marching on Together is from a Liverpool fan Christina Reece, who wrote: ‘I am a football fan though not Leeds but can relate to the characters’ passion for their club. All different in ages and gender and social status but with the one constant thing that binds them together.’

Of course, Yvonne’s travails are not the only theme in Marching on Together. Set in 2014, she is one of six Leeds fans, two of them brothers, on a short trip to Belgium, for a pre-football season holiday and to seek out the war grave of the brothers’ great-granddad, killed near Ypres in 1915. The sojourn brings to the surface stories they have been telling themselves, and decisions that they have to face, about their lives and their most cherished relationships; their hopes and ambitions – partly or wholly thwarted, in the case of some; with the potential of coming true, in the case of others.

 

Pre-publication reviews for Marching on Together

“I very much enjoyed Marching on Together and was happily carried along by the wonderfully realised characters” – bestselling author Louis de Bernières

“A beautifully told story with real characters which will fill you with warmth and make you want to read more” – Sonya Alford, A Lover of Books blog

“Each character was given time to develop and we became acquainted with their personal strengths and weakness – LOVED it,” – Sue Harrison, book blogger

“I was particularly drawn to the two female characters, who to me seemed to have the most depth … I loved the humour in the banter.  Somehow you managed to build in the pathos at the graveside, a reminder that we are complex characters capable of empathy while still behaving like a drunken lout at other times.” – Helen Armitage, retired ITV producer

March 14, 2017

Marching on Together excerpt: The Graveside

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 12:06 pm

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11: Honouring the Fallen, Marching on Together, PJ Whiteley, Urbane Publications 2017

‘Where have you been?’

‘Christmas shopping,’ replied Yvonne.

Christmas shopping?’ Craig asked with astonishment. ‘In August?’

‘I like to be organized. Make an early start.’

‘You don’t appear to have any bags.’

‘Well, it were just window shopping, early reconnaissance.’

‘What’ll you have?’

‘Go on, I’ll have a beer.’

‘What kind?’

‘Surprise me.’

Johnny had texted the venue to Allan, who appeared at around 3.30, looking serious, and mildly disapproving at the casually dressed, mildly tipsy crew.

‘You should be dressed smarter, for the cemetery like,’ he said to Johnny, who wore a vintage Leeds United shirt and blue jeans.

‘All right, Sergeant Major. You going to check my shoes for a good shine as well?’

‘Everything all right with your business lunch?’ asked Petra.

‘Yeah, yeah, sure,’ but Allan scowled in an irritated manner, trying to give the impression that the irritation lay solely at the timing of the inquiry, and not its content.

‘Right, well you lot smarten yourselves up, and sober up, as best you can. We’re off to the cemetery.’

It was a short drive to the Hooge Crater Cemetery, located on the Meenseweg, close to Ieper. They spent a few minutes searching for the name Private J Collins among the 5,922 headstones.

‘Most were killed in 1917 and 1918,’ noted Johnny, as they scanned the engravings. ‘Some from Australia and Canada.’

‘Some of the soldiers buried here were moved from other makeshift small graveyards close to battlefields, including from some battles early in the war,’ said Terry, who had read the guide. ‘So they consolidated into one.’

‘Found it!’ said Johnny, after a while.

They gathered around to look at the stone. ‘4576 PRIVATE J. Collins West Yorkshire Regiment 17TH April 1915’ was all it said.

‘Right, we’ll have a minute’s silence,’ announced Allan. They all stood solemnly, in a half circle, around the grave, staring at the white stone or down at the lush green grass. Yvonne shifted her weight from foot to foot. Craig sensed that Yvonne was ill at ease, and glanced up. A river of tears was rolling down her left cheek and, he supposed, the right cheek also. Before the end of the minute, she lifted a handkerchief to her eyes, and quietly sloped off. She hated the stone; its military coldness, the gun-barrel straight lines and sharp edges of the serifed font; the absence of poetry, or even a Christian name. She had wanted to smother Jack’s grave with flowers, pictures and words of love.

Allan broke the silence by clearing his throat, and then announcing: ‘Well observed, everyone. We can report back to Dad now. I’ll take a photo of the stone to show him.’

He clicked a couple of shots, then said: ‘Was that Yvonne, sloping off before the minute finished?’

‘No, I think she were right upset,’ said Craig.

‘It’s a bit disrespectful, if you ask me,’ said Allan.

‘I’m sure she didn’t mean that. She was crying.’

Allan gave a sceptical snort. Yvonne returned to join the group, slowly sauntering over. Allan said nothing.

 

January 31, 2017

Practical wisdom, and Louis de Bernières

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:23 am

As a self-taught journalist, management writer and novelist, I’ve picked up a lot more in the way of life experience than qualifications. When you self-educate, you need to be constantly aware of the cautionary note that a little knowledge can be dangerous. I think that I can argue that, after 20 years’ interviewing, researching and writing about management; about people in business, I’ve gleaned far more than a little about human nature. A text that particularly intrigued me was the book Making Social Science Matter, where the author Bent Flyvbjerg introduced me to Aristotle’s three concepts of knowledge: episteme (intellectual knowledge), techne (expertise, craft), and phronesis (practical wisdom). He argued that the last of these is neglected, and that the quest to turn social sciences into an exact science based on episteme alone was doomed. He is of course, quite correct. There’s a useful summary on this link.

‘Practical wisdom’ is an inexact translation of ‘phronesis’, as the latter is closer to ‘virtue’ in meaning, but the concept triggered in me a reflection that a broader definition, incorporating learning experiences in a fully lived life, is not highly valued in our society, though this may be changing. The phenomenon of exponential organizations shows that where a large number of gifted and highly motivated freelancers and consumers contribute to the development of a service or product, they tend to produce better improvements at a quicker pace than a small number of more highly qualified individuals. The case for diversity is now pragmatic, rather than political.

The concept of ‘practical wisdom’ also gave me the confidence to complete my first novel, which took 17 years. While I lacked the critical faculties of one who had studied TS Eliot, I could combine an eclectic reading list with a rich life experience, including backpacking in France while reading Camus, or travelling by boat up the Paraguay River reading Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, encouraging myself to challenge some of the world views I grew up with. The university of life is not superior to the formal faculty – I totally defend the place of literature that requires interpretation – but it can offer a complementary perspective. Given the popularity of thoroughly researched and finely crafted historical fiction, it’s probably a fair comment to say that contemporary novels are stronger on episteme and techne than phronesis.

When I had the opportunity to interview Louis de Bernières last year, I had the audacity to convince myself there were a few common points. His ability is of whole different order to mine – I could not complete a work on the scale of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But there was the living in South America, reading nothing but magical realism for a while, recognizing telepathic experiences, the emphasis on passion and authenticity, and being a British writer with a heavy bias towards non-British influences.

So I took the bloody nerve to ask him to read my second novel Marching on Together prior to publication, with a view to providing a quote for the cover. I did not expect that he would say yes. But he did. Once he had, I did not really expect him to like it. But he did. So now – ta da, drum roll – is said comment, going to the printers for the front cover as I write:

“I very much enjoyed Marching on Together and was happily carried along by the wonderfully realised characters” – bestselling author Louis de Bernières.

It’s a proud moment.

December 12, 2016

A test of character

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:52 pm

One of the aspects I most dislike about the delineation of popular and literary fiction is the underlying assumption that life can be divvied up neatly into levels; that something entertaining cannot be deep; or that characters of complexity don’t do whimsy and can’t have fun. In real life, and in good fiction, the lines are not so clear. At the end of the ‘comic’ novel (and it is very funny) Pratt of the Argus by David Nobbs, one encounters a most profound reflection on the ethical dilemma of balancing candour against discretion; more thought-provoking than anything I have read in a ‘serious’ literary novel by the Granta set.

At the Urbane Publications writers’ party last month, some of us discussed how an underrated strength of ‘popular’ authors is their ability to bring a character to life. Helen Fielding achieved this with Bridget Jones, whose observations on ‘smug marrieds’, or of dying alone surrounded by cats, are contemporary and funny, but also tragic, evoking primal fears about rejection and death. Also turning popular concepts upside down is La Peste, a classic existentialist novel by philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which features superbly drawn eccentrics and is at times laugh-out-loud funny.

There is so much focus on research and story arc these days that some writers forget that a primary objective is to bring a character to life. He or she may be tough and admirable, like Jane Eyre, or loathsome, at least initially, like Ebenezer Scrooge. The achievement is to make the character’s point of view also the reader’s. Consider the late comedian Ronnie Barker’s tribute to The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, another of David Nobbs’ works: “I still feel I am Reggie Perrin as I walk about.”

If the individual is fully developed, then he or she will convey telling insights into the human condition, as well as display ambition or jealousy or desire. A comic aside can be more revealing and original than pages of earnest introspection.

In my second novel, Marching on Together, one of the main characters is Yvonne Fairclough, whose family is falling apart as she goes through middle age, and she cannot grasp why. Could there possibly be a connection, she worries, to a guilty secret, a crime from many years ago for which she was never punished? Here’s a little window into Yvonne’s world, as she begins her Christmas shopping – in August:

“She preferred to buy gifts that were unwanted for others, than items that would be valued for herself. Yet how could gifts bring this near-evaporated ‘family’ back together? She sensed that, while a good choice would do little to arrest this unhappy dynamic, a wrong selection would only accelerate it. Each year she countered this pessimism with a formidable effort to begin the quest earlier, and devote more thought and more time.”

I cannot be certain that readers will feel for Yvonne as much as I do, and as much as I want them to. She’s real to me, now, but I’ve known her for two years. How will she get on with her new audience?

October 21, 2016

Louis and me

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:50 am

My interview with Louis de Bernières is published this week in H Edition, an international business and lifestyle magazine, to which I’m a regular contributor. It was obviously a privilege to interview him although, given that I love South American literature, play the guitar badly and am beginning a second career as a novelist, it was a bit like meeting a superior version of myself. The headline is ‘The Magic of Realism’, reflecting the ability of a gifted writer to engage observation and imagination in equal measure. An excerpt reads:

Like all great writers, de Bernières looks reality squarely in the eye, not flinching from the cruelty that people can display. In his early South American novels, and in Captain Corelli, there is unsparing detail of the calculated sadism of political violence, contrasted sharply with the tenderness of human love and eccentricity of human interests; all told with poetic clarity, shorn of hyperbole or adjectival excess.

To read the full article, click on this link.

October 14, 2016

Yesterday was a good day

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:36 am

Yesterday was a good day. I had some paid work. There were two new subscribers to my author book club (thanks Paul and Rachel! – before long I may not know the entire database by name…) And it was announced that the bard of Minnesota, Bob Dylan, referenced as one of my most influential writers in Close of Play and on my website, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will pick up the gong on my birthday, 10th December.

There have been some dismissive comments about a mere songwriter receiving literature’s most prestigious prize. I understand that view, and it would be of concern if there were to be a more general cheapening of literary awards, handed out to rock and pop stars. But Dylan is a one-off; a genuine poet, and one with a profound influence not only on society, but on writers – not just semi-professional novelists like myself, but also the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. So I thought I’d take the time to compose a blog on why many of us who earn our living by the pen owe a debt to Dylan, and why he’s a much greater writer than most novelists.

It’s not just the poetry – Andrew Motion has drawn attention to the beautiful imagery in Visions of Johanna, the ‘ghost of ‘lectricity’, the way in which ‘near’ rhymes with ‘mirror’ – there is great storytelling. In Lily Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, the scene-description is compelling. There is line about the drilling in the wall that keeps up ‘but no one seems to pay it any mind’. Every author will think, if they’re honest, ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ – the concise portrayal of a momentous event building, with an entire population missing the signs.

In the 1960s, it was Dylan himself who drew attention to what was going on in government, corporations and society; the deadly precision of lines such as ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden’, or the human gods who ‘make everything from toy guns that spark, to flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark’.

This originality of perspective is something almost completely absent from modern literature; the possibility that we can free ourselves from limiting beliefs, from dominant narratives, has slowly, sadly been disappearing from the artistic world (unless someone can direct me to some fresh voices).

We can get terribly solemn and po-faced about literature, which is probably why novel-writing is at a low ebb. There’s to be no humour, no life experiences, a safe sticking to genre and disinclination for the original view. There’s a deadening over-emphasis on meticulous plot and research (see my recent blog).

Listen to Blood on the Tracks. How many modern novels evoke such passion, or contain such poetry and such depth? Or lines like ‘I can’t even touch the books you’ve read’? There are some: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières; but not many written in the past ten years.

By all means criticize the award, but do so on an understanding of the work, not just from overhearing Tambourine Man on the radio. A dismissive comment by someone who hasn’t taken the time to listen to and appreciate such astonishing works as It’s Alright Ma, Hard Rain, Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Lily Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, Idiot Wind, Pay in Blood and many others is rather lazy.

Instead of asking: ‘Why should a songwriter win the Nobel?’, those of us who are authors should turn the spotlight back on ourselves: Can we equal Dylan’s finest work for its originality of phrase, originality of perspective, concise description of scene, storytelling power, its poetry and depth of feeling? If not, get back to class and stop whingeing.

September 27, 2016

Are fiction and non-fiction swapping roles?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:16 am

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

 

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