Wednesday 19 September 2018

Television review: Selfie is sticking to his guns

  • Newsnight (BBC2)

Author Will Self... 'the novel is doomed'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Author Will Self... 'the novel is doomed'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

A couple of years ago I wrote an article in this paper's Life magazine about the Booker Prize, which required me to ring up the nearest bookshop to check if they had the six novels which were on the shortlist.

I quickly became aware of the fact that the person on the other end of the phone had very little idea what I was talking about, this "Booker Prize" thing - which made me feel a bit like the old man in the classic TV ad for the Golden Pages, going into bookshops looking for his obscure volume called Fly Fishing, by JR Hartley.

It felt as if I was on some eccentric quest that was of interest only to myself, rather than inquiring about what was supposed to be the hottest annual event in the world of books. So when I see that Will Self has again declared that "the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony", and when I see him duly mocked for this by other writers, I have to say that Selfie is probably more right than wrong on this one.

Indeed, when he says that it's impossible to think of a novel that's been a "water-cooler moment" in Britain since Trainspotting in 1991, I could add that in Ireland this applies even to the water-coolers in certain bookshops.

So when BBC2's Newsnight had a debate about the Booker Prize, naturally you'd assume that they'd be putting Selfie up against his critics, arguing about the existential matters which he has been raising, going straight to the core of what is supposed to be a very important issue in our culture in this part of the world - in Ireland in particular we're supposed be deeply interested in it, in theory at least, since we would claim with some justification that we have a genius for the writing of literary fiction.

But Newsnight did not have Selfie, they did not have that debate, instead they had writers Ben Okri and Lionel Shriver arguing about the merits of the decision taken in 2014 to expand the Booker beyond the "Commonwealth" and Ireland, to include America.

But there is no real argument about this - it was clearly a completely terrible idea, and it will probably be corrected at some stage, though the main thing is that it doesn't matter anyway. The main thing is what Selfie was talking about, the vast estrangement of the general public from the novel in its more elevated forms, the way it has become this "marginal cultural form" which is given these jolts of false energy by the Booker Prize and other prizes - indeed there is something almost juvenile about the desperate pursuit of these prizes for 20 grand or 50 grand, these tokens of esteem which still wouldn't pay the rent for a year, these giddy awards ceremonies a bit like prize-giving day at school.

If Newsnight had really been on the case, they would have spared us this dreary dinner party conversation and brought on Donal Ryan instead to talk about his latest novel, but mainly to address the issue of how Ryan, probably the most successful writer of literary fiction in Ireland today, can't make a living at it - to do that he would need some freakish international hit, and he can't be just waiting and hoping for that stroke of luck.

The decision of Donal Ryan to return to his job in the Workplace Relations Commission was one of the more significant events in Irish culture and indeed in literary culture in general in recent times, one of those moments of truth which is clearly too truthful to be addressed at any length by the cognoscenti - as for the broader culture, it's not that people don't care about these things, they don't even know much about them in the first place.

It is a hugely interesting subject, this disappearance of a great art-form from public view, its transformation into a kind of academic fetish - ideally they'd be tackling this on the main evening news, but they probably don't know about it either.

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