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Stranger than Fiction
January/February 2010


During Newsnight Review's survey of the 2009 Man Booker shortlist, the presenter Kirsty Wark puzzled why every novel on the list was historical. Weren't any major authors brave enough to address the problems of their own time — especially during our era of upheaval?

Although not a bad kick-off for a discussion, the poser was technologically and bureaucratically ill-informed. To be in the running for last year's Booker, whose release-date cut-off for eligibility was 30 September 2009, any novel that took on the "credit crunch", which began in earnest only with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, would need to have been written by a clairvoyant. What with editing, copyediting, cover design, multiple proof readings and production, on average it takes a year from a manuscript's initial submission for a book to see print. Researching, writing and revising a novel commonly require another couple of years. Thus authoring fiction that speaks to the moment — fiction that seems, that much-vaunted adjective in my teens, "relevant" — requires writers to see at least three years into the future. No wonder those Booker shortlistees chose instead to look back.

Granted, some novelists try and capture the ever-fleeting present, which keeps running ahead like a mechanical rabbit just out of the reach of racing greyhounds. I write roughly contemporary novels myself. So while in the big picture writers do have pretty cushy lives, we do have a few problems, and this is one: not only is reality constantly outclassing anything a fiction writer could possibly make up (any novel before 2001 that told the story of the World Trade Centre's implosion would be dismissed as a tacky, over-the-top thriller), but history has a nasty habit of galloping right over your head while you're still spell-checking "Altavista".

Case in point: I began my latest, So Much for That, in autumn 2007, and 18 months later submitted a finished draft. Once it is released in March, my publisher will have taken the usual year since delivery to get the book into shops. Described in HarperCollins's spring catalogue as about "illness, death, and money", the novel was inspired by both the untimely death of a close friend and my exasperation with the dysfunctions and injustices of American healthcare. I realised that dramatising the underhand  practices of health insurance companies might plausibly limit the novel's literary timelessness. Yet if I could make any contribution to an ongoing debate of such importance, I was willing to make that sacrifice. Besides, given how cosily health insurance companies were in bed with Congress, what was going to happen?

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