Stranger than Fiction

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?

In 2007, Barack Obama was barely in the running for the Democratic nomination, so how could I have known he would be elected president? How was I to know, either, that he’d push healthcare reform to the top of his agenda in his first year in office? When I delivered my manuscript the same month that the administration geared up for an all-out offensive on healthcare reform, I had a sick intuition that there was such a thing as being too relevant. My non-fiction agenda, initially ahead of its time, was in danger of becoming a political anachronism overnight. In the hopes of garnering what’s called “off the book page publicity”, these last few months, I’ve found myself in the perverse position of praying, in defiance of my own passionate support for legislation of this very sort, that Congressional healthcare reform would get hopelessly bogged down in internecine squabbles — just so long as no bill passed until after my release date. Sounds selfish? Hell, yes! That book was a lot of work!

Fortunately, So Much for That is set firmly in 2005-2006, and thus remains historically accurate regardless of any legislation in 2010. Being fiction, too, it’s only fractionally about health insurance. It aims more broadly to capture the impact of grave illness on a marriage, Western culture’s discomfort with sickness and moribundity and our universal discomfort with what my protagonist calls “the d-word”. Luckily for me, death isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and will surely prove impervious to any Congressional bill declaring mortality illegal.

Nevertheless, readers who chafe that novels aren’t speaking to modern predicaments should consider how perilous it is for writers to tackle topical subjects. Given the writing and production lag, the now will be then by publication. Hyper-relevance is a formula for the old-hat. The up-to-date slides to the dated in a heartbeat. Ergo, in describing a self-serving parliament in 1529 rather than 2009, Hilary Mantel was smart.

Meanwhile, if any budding novelists out there are searching for material that’s bound to be all too germane for years and years to come? Here’s a tip: write about Afghanistan.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens