Talk about Newsnight

Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl

Fiction, opera, cricket, church... spot the odd one out

  • Paul Mason
  • 7 Jun 06, 08:33 AM

zadiesmith203.jpgI was at the Orange Prize ceremony last night to see Zadie Smith win for her new book "On Beauty". The crowd was young, trendy, not particularly metropolitan and - this being a women's fiction prize - mainly female. It struck me, and some of my acquaintances in the book trade, that fiction has managed to do what so much in high culture has failed to do: revitalise its audience.

If you go to the opera these days the demographics are not much different from a Saga world cruise; "it's the same when you go to Church or cricket", said one of our party. Someone else pointed out that Newsnight recently has "gone whizzy and alternative" - and asked if that, too, was part of the search for a younger audience. Er, yes is the answer.

I think the book trade holds a lesson for everybody in the media business who is concerned about the decline of the youth audience for culture and current affairs. Also for politicians. Despite its notorious fustiness (as personified by the famous Private Eye characters "Snipcock and Tweed") fiction managed to reinvent itself by a) making young authors instant stars - so that the celebrity obsessed generation could actually relate to them (you may find this distasteful but I think you would rather your daughter had Zadie Smith as a role model than Chantelle); and b) by letting the content actually speak to the issues and interests the under-35 audience cares about.

Take the books on the Orange short list:

Zadie Smith's "On Beauty": "After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive elder son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for the Trinidadian right-wing academic and pundit Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty's beautiful, capricious daughter, Victoria."

Hilary Mantel's "Beyond Black": "Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of London's orbital road with her flint-hearted sidekick Collette, passing on messages from dead ancestors. But behind her plump smiling persona is a desparate woman; the next life holds terrors she must conceal from her clients..."

Nicole Krauss "History of Love": "Old Leo (a new entry in the Jewish-lit canon) nurses the loss of his true love, as well as his only son—a famous writer—and his own great manuscript. Krauss’s novel is emotionally wrenching yet intellectually rigorous, idea-driven but with indelible characters and true suspense." (this a quote from the New York Metro interview with Krauss)

Sarah Waters "The Night Watch": "ultimately about relationships and secrets. The four main characters, Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan each have a skeleton in their cupboard that they would do anything to keep secret. Kay was an ambulance driver during the war. Fearless, she lived the war on adrenalin alone; but now the war is over, Kay is haunted by the images of what she saw. Helen is shy and madly in love with Julia, a love perhaps bordering on obsession; she works in a dating agency with Viv. Viv has a boyfriend but their relationship is not straightforward and causes her an unending amount of heartache. Finally there is Duncan, who is sensitive and quiet, aimlessly letting life pass him by while he toils in a candle factory. Never able to forget the death of his best friend, Duncan hides from the world and his family." (this from Bibliofemme)

Add in Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany (a philosophical novel about a couple who try to live an alternative lifestyle in the 1930s outback Australia) and Ali Smith's "The Accidental" (Each member of the family tells their story about their interactions with Amber, who befriends Astrid, seduces Magnus and saves him from suicide, bewitches Michael, and understands Eve's aloofness from the rest of them, it says here), and you get the picture.

Successful women's fiction is about modern life in its complexity; you could say the same about the rash of successful modern crime fiction (where the hero is inevitably a dour Nordic alcoholic) and of course about the mega-novels that get on the Booker shortlist. My colleague Martha Kearney, who chaired the judging panel, joked that it had taught her "women's fiction is not about affairs in Kentish Town" (Kentish Town was once a middle class enclave of North London). However, I think in the 1980s it was in danger of being just that. Instead it is now a vibrant palate of words and ideas that speaks direct to the imagination of the young woman office worker on the tube. It is about modern life and modern people (even when it is set in the 1930s), and above all new ideas.

Now that young woman office worker on the tube reading "On Beauty" this morning, and her boyfriend (oh alright then, to avoid heterosexism her girlfirend as well) is, unwittingly, the object of obsession for every media executive arts administrator and politician in the land. There are opera bosses obsessed with getting her bum on their red velvet seating; there are TV execs frustrated that she is a perennial "low-approver" of their highbrow content; there are politicians of all parties nervously seeking to interest her in the mysteries of the public sector borrowing requirement.

For all high-powered people in the business of news, current affairs, TV, publishing, opera, High Anglicanism and cricket I have this advice: read one of these books and learn about what people under 35 actually care about. Of course that gives the game away because I do not know many blokes who read women's fiction and most top decision makers, even now, in the industries I list, are men educated at an elite university who would not be seen dead reading a Zadie Smith book, on the tube or elsewhere. (I have to confess that I myself am not an avid reader of modern fiction full stop, being obsessed with "ideas books", history and biography - so, fair enough, I am part of the problem).

One modern institution that seems to have no problem adapting to the new audience and its values is, of course, France Telecom, owner of Orange, who sponsor this prize. Its bosses seemed highly delighted that their super-cool, newly global, brand image could bask in the glow of all the clever populist trendiness on display last night.

It was a kind of high-brow primer for the marketing fest of cool, androgyny and multi-ethnicity that will define the World Cup. It's not rocket science: this is the new zeitgeist - get with it, make money, save your medium or your art form, reinvent your political party. Depise it, ignore it - and your audience, or customer base, is gonna look much the same as bingo hall in Llandudno. (And as you will now find out from the comments backlash against this posting, a lot of people still don't get it).

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 09:55 AM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Neil wrote:

Surely cricket is also out of place in this item? It may be true of county championship matches but I suggest that you go to a Twenty20 match some time.

  • 2.
  • At 10:16 AM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Paul Mason wrote:

I think Twenty20 matches prove my point: it was my mate who said this about cricket and I am presuming he means the third day of a counties match between Glamorgan and Derbyshire but as I never go to cricket, I could be mistaken.

  • 3.
  • At 12:49 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Jim Holroyd wrote:

Fiction in the form of novels will continue to be exciting and relevant long after mobile TV and other exciting current trends are passé.
All you need for a book is light and the ability to read, no batteries, no problems downloading etc..
Each new generation will have its Harry Potters, Zadie Smiths or Da Vinci Codes to introduce them to this exciting medium.
The Orange list was amazing, I really enjoyed Ali Smith's "The Accidental", she was very experimental with the novel's style. Prose would turn to poetry, halfway through, sentences would start in the middle...

Speaking about books, I would like to let you know that on "Sunday Edition" [A CBC Program heard on Radio Canada International], Michael Enright interviewed the authors of a book about Pierre Trudeau "Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec Father of Canada". It is being sold in Canada, although I think it could be bought in Amazon.

  • 5.
  • At 10:13 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • David Hopwood wrote:

It's "Sarah Waters", not Walters.

  • 6.
  • At 11:08 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Paul Mason wrote:

Correct. I have changed it. Apologies to Sarah. I had too much coffee while I was typing it.

  • 7.
  • At 01:52 PM on 08 Jun 2006,
  • Candadai Tirumalai wrote:

During my 20 years in England, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I thought the days on which Test cricket was being played in England had for its enthusiasts, not just at the venue but in numerous other towns, the jollity and euphoria of a wedding and the solemnity of a funeral, depending on how the game was going. Smaller and smaller numbers may be involved in the experience but nevertheless I think it a deep one, the kind provided by a great novel.

  • 8.
  • At 06:48 PM on 11 Jun 2006,
  • Eric Dickens wrote:

A one of the few bearded males (no, I didn't say "ladies") ever to have made his presence felt on the Orange (no, I didn't say Ulster) website, I begin to wonder what Britain is doing with all these mixuppable lady writers named Zadie Smith, Ali Smith and Monica Ali. What I said briefly on the ladies' own website was that the Orange is sexist. Nadime Gordimer has said similar - which is encouraging, as then I won't get labelled as the token MCP to have graced the Orange website.

My point: what is this nuttiness about women writers? Just because lady writers in the past were regarded as a bit odd - and yet produced some of the outstanding works of literature the world over (e.g. Eliot, Austen, Lispector, Sand, Lagerlöf and God knows how many tens of thousands more) - there is no need to make a fetish about females who write.

I applaud getting the under-35s to read books, but why this segregation of the sexes? And the segregation of gays who write, blacks who write, all hived off on their neat little shelves in the bookshop.

If I read the very funny comic writer Jane Austen, it's not 'cos she's a Woman, but because I like her wit. If they started shelves and festivals for Men Writers, Heterosexual Writing and Literary Whites & Asians, there'd be outpourings of bile.

Successful women's fiction is fiction - without the wearyingly clichéed epithet "women's".

I agree about Martha's "non-Kentish town" opinion. Now it's time to have "non-women's writing". Women writers are not a hapless minority who need a leg up in society. Some woman writers are no doubt as cut-throat and overweeningly ambitious as any male.

Never mind the vibrant palate and the Zeitgeist. Just read the books as books.

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