The News as a Novel

Born YesterdayAm reading Gordon Burns’ Born Yesterday at the moment. Burn is one of my favourite writers, whether he’s producing non-fiction such as his remarkable books about serial killers (Peter Sutcliffe in Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son; Fred and Rose West in Happy Like Murderers) or the recent Best and Edwards about the Manchester United players; or fiction like Alma Cogan and Fullalove.

His writes brilliantly about celebrity, and infamy, and describes rather than explains, leaving you to make your own mind up. In other words, he treats the reader like an intelligent person.

With Born Yesterday, though, he is drifting into more experimental territory, presenting news stories from last summer – the search for Madeleine McCann, Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair etc – as a continuous narrative, pointing out the coincidences and connections as he goes. In many ways with this book Burn is delving into the kind of stuff that B.S. Johnson would approve of, effectively writing a non-fiction novel. Johnson famously considered that telling stories was telling lies, and therefore a Bad Thing (for a good introduction to Johnson and his work, Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant is superb. He is famous for doing stuff like having a hole cut into the pages of a novel so the reader can see into the future by reading the text a few pages in advance).

Burn is fundamentally right in that the news these days is a novel. Much of the news and the way in which it is presented seems to have more in common with soap opera plots than traditional reporting: the McCann issue being a case in point, with the attitude towards the parents of the missing girl wavering between sympathy, then approbation, mistrust and back to sympathy again.

But the news now is a story in which we can all participate. Being halfway through, I’m not sure if Burn will touch on the role that we all can have now as citizen journalists, or social reporters. But the images that we take on our mobile phones and post to Flickr or Facebook, or the video we capture and stream through services like Qik, or the opinions we report on our blogs and social network profiles all add to the primordial soup of content from which the news will be formed. As traditional media organisations get more and more wise to the role that citizen journalism can play, we will see a preponderance of amateur news reporting, creating a richer tapestry from which the news ‘novel’ can be formed.

Burn has the advantage of looking back at events and seeing them within a wider context. Perhaps this is the role that traditional media will play in the future, pulling together all the threads of the content produced by us, reporting on what is going on around us.

Update: By sheer chance, there was an article on B.S. Johnson on Guardian Online yesterday.