Sunday, 19 May 2013

Literature as a metaphor for the dynamics of the public sphere

The critic and the journalist have one aim, to make things plain, but regardless we do not love them. The critic might be a bit up-himself or -herself whereas the novelist becomes an idol to be admired, pursued (at literary festivals, at book signings, by biographers), feted, and materially rewarded. Often, the one person might fill all three roles: critic, novelist, journalist. In Australia it seems as though every journalist comes out with his or her own novel at some point in time. And novels might perform the same critical purpose as journalism: to bring attention to a perceived problem and inspire a willingness within society to make a major change. This was certainly the aim of Charles Dickens, who probably, after Jane Austen, is the most-beloved of novelists who have written in the English language. The picture that accompanies this post shows an 1870 caricature of Dickens published in a London magazine: there is the great writer surrounded, as though in thought bubbles, by the characters his faithful readers had loved so much. Coming from a background of material disadvantage, Dickens (1812 - 1870) saw many things that were wrong in his England. And strange as it may seem today, many of his novels came out initially in serialised form, a method that had precedents; 100 years earlier some of the novels by Samuel Richardson had also come out serially, in periodicals. In both cases, eager readers often were moved to make suggestions, as it were in some way to have an impact on the destiny of the novelistic characters, and to participate in the narrative.

For journalists, reader participation is a routine part of the practice of journalism today, as readers make comments on stories published on websites. But while these commenters are often as passionate as the readers of the novels of Richardson and Dickens, they are also often vicious and intemperate; journalists are not liked in the same way that novelists are. Nor are politicians, who often appear in the journalists' stories and fulfill specific roles in the daily narrative. The savagery of commenters works within the dynamics of this quotidian narrative like some sort of binding agent, one which is designed to fill the gap between the aspirations of public figures - who always have a specific agenda when they participate in the public sphere - and the needs of people in the community. Those heated comments are flung across the gap like ropes that are thrown in the heat of a moment of disaster, or like rescue lines that would ensure that a man overboard can be saved. Their aim is to bring the commenter closer to the people involved in the narrative: the journalist, the politician, the criminal. They are aspirational in the way they work, and they reflect an important reality in that the franchise is universal for adults in liberal democracies.

No, we do not love journalists as we do novelists, although most of the former are in the business of diffusing truth while novelists retail in lies or, perhaps, novelists lie in order to deal with larger truths. But while in the public sphere we often just succumb - despite having thrown a desperate line across the gap that separates us from the ship of state - in literature we succumb willingly.

The difference in the way these two forms of writing operate has something about it in the sense of a category error. In both cases we are dealing with mere words, but we grant leniency to the novelist that is unavailable to the journalist. For both kinds of writer temporal power is real, and the agents of that power are liable to critique. But we expect journalists to agree with us, whereas we allow novelists to make their own choices, and we merely critique how they write, and not what they write. Obversely, the matter of style is apparently unimportant in the case of journalists.

The notion of being drawn into the narrative is central, I believe, to how we respond in both cases. For novels, we willingly allow ourselves to be drawn into the narrative, and allow it to carry our thoughts along, to provoke them and stimulate them into activity. For journalism, we resist the attraction if the narrative clashes with our beliefs, and we then complain loudly, or else if we feel that it justifies our own biases we enthusiastically praise the writer. Simple economics shows that unbiased news is unpopular - in the US, MSNBC (liberal) and Fox (conservative) are thriving while CNN (more neutral) is having financial problems. And as social media diffuses the centre of gravity in publishing away from established mastheads, these outlets tend to become more clearly of the one camp or the other. The unspoken agreement is that people will follow the news within the orbit of their preferred ideology, so journalism becomes more like literature, and a place where we can willingly succumb to narratives that are presented to us.

In this new environment, the journalist who stands up and says, "No, I believe we need to have in-depth, unbiased and completely objective news," is like the literary critic who demands more from what functions as popular culture. He or she is part of the elite and, in Australia at least, this means that he or she is hardly going to make many friends. But his or her motivation is admirable: asking for narrative products that any individual in the community can consume without the danger of being left behind by the ship of state. It's a completely democratic aspiration on his or her part. It is also inclusive and equitable, since it desires to give notice to all of the direction the ship of state will take, so that the ones who are unfavourably situated can easily and in a timely manner take steps to ensure that they are not left behind.

But do we reward this critic of journalism? Actually, we ignore him or her. This is because we live in stories all the time, we live literature, as it were, and of course many stories contain drama. We tell ourselves stories as we walk down the street to make ourselves feel better in the face of some small temporal reverse. Stories are the place where we live, and because of this we seem happy to play out the drama of abandonment or that of revenge. We act to cast into the space that surrounds us lines thrown with energy and passion, and pretend that we want them to be seized by someone riding on the departing vessel.

Luckily, much of the drama is notional, a proxy for larger dramas that really do play out in many parts of the world; places where there is injustice of a kind that we have not seen for generations. Out of the corner of our eye we watch passively - most of us, anyway - as people in those countries try to catch up to our ship as it chugs along toward the ever-receding horizon. Meanwhile, on the decks, public actors shuffle the chairs about to compensate for demographic changes that are entirely outside their control.

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