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2018 has, sadly, made the novel increasingly irrelevant

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All those end of year pronouncements about what a year it’s been, what’s been the biggest issues and who has been the noisiest newsmakers, plus the usual lists from arts and cultural sites about best films and books – it has a tiredness to it in 2018, don’t you think? 

The best novel lists used to be so enticing, but novels now…. Hard to care. 

Novels seem unimportant within a social setting that is so volatile, particularly when news is fictionalised in kaleidoscopic fragments. They ought to be more important, not less, an antidote to the fractured and fractious info-tainment of politics via the media. 

I shouldn’t quote Adorno because I have scant understanding of his work, but that idea about poetry being impossible (“barbaric” according to some translations) since Auschwitz is haunting. I’m wondering if, in a different way, the creeping apocalypse of populist anti-democracy renders the novel somehow irrelevant – and possibly even if not barbaric at least irrelevant. 

That is dramatic, yes, and it might just be yet another round of absurd nastiness from the news cycle that’s prompting such thoughts. Many novelists – some of them very good – do “tackle” social, political and environmental “issues” but even futuristic stories showing us an imagined end-game for the planet are either easy to dismiss as most fantasy is or so bleak they are depressing.

The good news (!) is that there IS writing that can sort of help and there ARE books that provide hope. I’m not talking about all those quasi-self-help books, many with “hope” in the title, that advocate excellent attitudinal thinking about social issues, ways to hug each other and the planet in a huddle of hopeful solidarity. They’re not a bad thing, but I fear they talk to those – and only to those – who already think alike so they don’t really foster change. It’s the same with the endless angry/funny stand-up comedy that lambasts power: we hawhaw with a groan but there’s nothing in it at all that helps us see how things might change. If you saw Hannah Gadsby’s presentation at the Hollywood Reporter shindig last week, you might have found her courage inspiring and her ideas confronting but, frankly, the thinking was a bit woolly and had some of that righteous tunnelling into a dead end that marks the twittersphere and other kinds of short sharp social media. It’s celebrity cleverness that is really only niftily-expressed opinion – again.

What we need is not to react with distaste, despondence or hilarity at how populism and identity politics are threatening democracy but to feed our knowledge about why it’s happening. It’s not easy because there is so much “history” to understand, but the very best writers find a way to condense much into manageable chunks that don’t overwhelm a reader who has limited interest in how governments formed in different countries and in international commerce, finance and social relations. 

If we turn instead to someone like AC Grayling, even though what we learn is not happy news, it is empowering.

AC Grayling is a writer familiar to many Australian readers because he visits here regularly, and also someone, I’m delighted to say, who will likely be back next August to talk more about his new book, Democracy and Its Crisis.

Like his book War (a brilliantly illuminating analytical history that refuses the received wisdom that men have always and will always fight) this measured, calm writing can seem uninviting for a reader who is used to jumping around from opinion piece to smart-arse tweet to tv panel commentary and back to a news site online. Democracy in crisis? Nah, let’s just be appalled at a Donald Trump tweet, catch up with the outing of the latest jaw-dropping political hypocrite and check in with a sassy comedian. 

If we turn instead to someone like Grayling, even though what we learn is not happy news, it is empowering. Rather than a maelstrom of noisy opinion, there is something solid on which to build a future that might be ok.

None of what Grayling says will be unfamiliar to those who have studied the history of Western democracy but what is impressive about Democracy and Its Crisis is the way he moves with such a steady tread from Aristotle and Plato, via the Putney debates of the English Civil War in the 17th century, through to what he sees as the “beginning of a solution” to the dilemma of democracy, in the Enlightenment and the American version evolving out of French thought.

As you can see, this is a formidable trajectory for a layperson more used to reading novels.  Grayling expects his readers to keep up and pay attention but is also respectful, never making assumptions about what might not be known. He’s done all the work for us, gathering so much information. His skill is in selecting the details that support his history, so it never bogs down or is overwhelming. 

Once we are apprised of the history of what he calls democracy’s “compromise” – between mob rule and oligarchy – Grayling gets down to the current crisis, which is demonstrated, he says, most forcibly in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK. 

Grayling stresses the need for an informed populace not whipped into hysterical opinions.

For an Australian reader, his argument makes very clear what is good about our own democratic system, which has compulsory and proportional representation voting. What we share with the USA and UK is a lack of transparency in political donations and also a failure of civic education. 

Grayling, in his argument for what democracy requires to function effectively, uses the word “grown-up”, stressing the need for an informed populace not whipped into hysterical opinions. How on earth is this to be achieved? One of his remedial requirements is that the media be subject to strict fact-checking, and penalised heftily for misinformation. 

This alone seems impossible; and yet, just a short while ago, maybe a decade or two, getting the facts right was sine qua non for a journalist. Speaking of journalists, Gabrielle Chan, in her book about regional Australia, Rusted Off, suggests that people in communities are mobilising to do what governments are failing at, a hopeful thought against the tide of pessimism. Grayling is hopeful too, but it’s difficult to imagine how his remedial agenda for democracy can be implemented by communities, rather than institutions and government both of which are crushingly impeded by moneyed power.

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic. I hope so.  What would be heartening is to know that the kind of reading offered in a book such as Democracy and Its Crisis will continue to be valued for the way it enables grown-up discussion about our society. If I was confident of that, maybe I’d be able to enjoy novels as much as I used to, which would be nice.

7 responses to “2018 has, sadly, made the novel increasingly irrelevant

  1. Nice piece …

    And yes, I’m beginning to feel that Creative Arts across the board will soon become a dormant force in people’s lives — not dead — but certainly dormant for an extended period as it has in the past.

  2. This is a brilliant book . Grayling presents two powerful reasons for a good democracy, Voting to be a compulsory, civic responsibility –
    from 16 years of age. His reason: ‘…what people learn at school about these matters can be applied straight away….and there will be a greater responsibility and thoughtful voting continuing thereafter.’
    His chapter on Brexit is a top class.

  3. Novels are dead?What a load of rubbish! I read many fabulus books this year, several by exciting new writers. As they say in the classics, only the boring are bored.

  4. Thanks, I have spent the last week before Chrismas planning out my holiday tsundoku, Democracy and its crisis will sit atop White Houses by Amy Bloom, and A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls.

  5. The Grayling and Chan books both sound like fascinating and necessary reading, and I’m eager to tackle both. I accept that most of today’s developments are so larger than life that fiction can struggle to keep up. But I myself have found more meaningful commentary about modern society in some recent science fiction and fantasy novels than almost anywhere else. Speculative fiction can imagine the end of roads we’re currently travelling, and explore alternate ways of living, in a way that I think is absolutely vital at the moment. Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice are too examples well-known for just that, but even less overtly philisophical works like the Expanse or Red Rising series are thrillingly current and relevant.

  6. Look, I admire Grayling, but this seems a return to some pretty well-trodden ground. The conclusion seems pretty emblematic of liberalism’s unshakeable naivetee in the notion that better education will simply equate to better outcomes. While certainly not the bumper sticker variety of this theme (“facts have a liberal bias”), problems remain in this account of civic education. For one, this has the effect of placing the burden on the populace (to be better informed), rather than the elites (often better educated, it should be pointed out) running this planet into the ground. I seem to recall that Boris Johnson had a classical education, and yet this hasn’t stopped his contributions to Brexit. Indeed, he evidently imagines himself as quite the Caesarian figure.

    1. Boris Johnson wrote an autobiography of Winston Churchill; he seems to project himself as a recidivus of that over-rated leader who lives in the pages of his book. Boris is not so much a product of his education – elitist as that may have been, his education was a by-product of his privileged and wealthy class. The link between class (especially, but not only in the UK) and education, social mobility, privilege and wealth should never be ignored, even in a notionally meritocratic society as Australia. The ideas possessed of itself by any class of people are essential in the shaping of that class.
      A.C. Grayling is a fervent believer in the discussion and integration of ideas – see his idea of a subject like “History of Ideas” being an obligatory subject in secondary education, This is not a just an unfanciful and straightforward discussion of so-called facts with a “liberal bias” but a detailed examination and critique of the ideas human beings have of themselves and which cause division in any and all societies.
      The current Brexit debate in the UK and the attitude many have of the USA President, Donald Trump, could well do with a deep discussion and critique of the ideas behind the debates. This exercize should not be in the hands of the elites but in a general population that has been educated to articulate and evaluate the ideas that are current and dominant in the governments of these states. What would be true of the UK and USA is also relevant for Australia.

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