Fact Versus Fiction

Carlo Gebler argues that the proliferation of information has affected our love of the novel

When I started out as a writer in 1985, fiction was king (and queen). ‘Write a novel,' my agent always said on those rare occasions when he deigned to speak to me. Of late, however, he has sung from a different hymn sheet. ‘Fiction is finished,’ he says, ‘the future is non-fiction.’

He’s right. In these islands at least, publishers don’t want to publish fiction like they used to, other than that works by Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, JK Rowling - or that of good looking recent graduates of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. They want to publish non-fiction. Why? I think it’s like this.

Once upon a time, if you were, say, a Victorian housewife living in Bath, contented and relatively prosperous and literate, the only way you could find out about the world beyond Bath was to read. Amongst the books that you would read, novels would have featured hugely.

You would have read a lot and found out about what you didn’t know. The way all this information would come into your head would have been via that marvellous organ – your imagination.

With this part of the brain you could turn the words on the page into pictures in your head. And your imagination would have been very good at doing this because you would have made it do an awful lot of this kind of work.

You would therefore have found it easy to take long complicated books (by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray) and turn the words that were on the page into flickering images inside your skull.

In the 20th century, all changed. First came the cinema, which did surprisingly little damage to the imagination. Then came television - and that’s when the rot set in. Television in the west (and it is the west and in particular the British Isles I’m talking about) has given people access to what they used to get from books, especially novels.

If you are in a housewife in Bath today, you don’t have to go to the bother of reading (which requires effort) if you want to find out about the world at large. You can now find out everything you could possibly want from television or, latterly, the internet.

There is an awful lot of good television (as well as a lot of rubbish), and as far as providing information goes, it has done a reputable and commendable job. However, television has had two deleterious effects.

Firstly, because it provides the pictures that the imagination used to provide, we, as viewers, don’t exercise our imaginations anything like as much as we once did. The result is that our imaginations have grown flabby and lazy and ineffective and defective.

This means that it is therefore that much harder to extract images and narrative sustenance from a book. They could roar through 100,000 words in a few hours and get a stream of images as a reward. But, for us generally, it’s hard work steaming through a book and we get a headache.  

The other deleterious effect of television is that it has made us suspicious, especially of fiction. Television (and the internet) has shown us just about everything that anyone on this planet has done, or has thought about doing, or would like to do. Everything. As a result fiction, in comparison, has started to look pretty inadequate.

We always thought that novelists were telling us the most extreme things about human experience. But we discovered that that wasn’t true. Television showed us things were much more extreme.

From that knowledge has sprung the new appetite, for stories that are true, for stories that really happened. Readers want that and publishers love it. There’s no better way to sell a book than to wheel out the writer and have them say, on television, 'Everything in my book is true. It happened to me. It happened to my wife. It happened to whom ever.'

I am a writer and, if I have to write non-fiction to earn a living, then I will write non-fiction. But I’m not happy with how things have developed. A story - a made up story - will put you into a trance if it's half decent. There’s no greater pleasure than to lose yourself in a story (it may even be better than sex).

To be sure, when we read non-fiction, we also make pictures in our head, but very few non-fiction books will transport you like a novel. The other problem with non-fiction, of course, is perhaps the strangest part of this whole story.  

Novels, which are lies and which are sold as lies, are in decline but non-fiction, which is supposed to be the truth, or some sort of truth, is in the ascendant yet much of it is as invented as the fiction it has usurped.

I believe non-fiction writers have a duty to try to tell the truth. Sadly, in case after case, they lie. And by this fact do we know that truly the world is mad.