The rock musician Noel Gallagher recently launched an attack on the art of fiction, and people who read novels and review them, and was widely reported for doing so. He might even be said to have 'sparked off a debate'.
His line of reasoning was developed in conversation with the journalist Danny Wallace in connection with Gallagher's becoming GQ magazine's 'Icon of the Year'. Wallace pulled that age-old reporter's trick of transcribing his interviewee's thoughts with all the repetition, redundancy and inarticulate profanity that journalists usually omit:
"I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time [...] I can't suspend belief in reality … I just end up thinking, 'This isn't fucking true'."
Gallagher went on to explain his preference for books "about things that have actually happened", giving as an example Ernest R May's The Kennedy Tapes, an account of goings-on in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis:
"I'm reading this book at the minute … Thinking, 'Wow, this actually fucking happened, they came that close to blowing the world up!'"
He takes a particularly dim view of folk like me, because in his view: "[P]eople who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living."
Apart, I suppose, from those who write and read and review the kind of "factual books" that Gallagher admires. Of course, in the case of The Kennedy Tapes what interests the reader is precisely something that never happened, but almost did. That quibble aside, isn't Gallagher, in assuming such a judgemental position, putting himself just a tiny little bit above those of us who happen to find pleasure and fulfilment in reading novels? Can a fabulously wealthy pop star really be so chippy and thin-skinned? Can anyone be so thick? Isn't, come to that, the kind of music he offers itself a low grade form of escapist fiction? What would he say to a view that his "pathetic little songs" are not only pathetic but also dull, boorish, derivative and pretentious? What would he say if I compared his gormless brand of radio fodder with the work of Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen. None of these performers appeal to me especially, but they are, let's agree, pre-eminent in their field. I could be wrong but I have the impression that Gallagher's band, Oasis, are little more then Beatles copyists, churning out humdrum stadium anthems to a blokeish crowd.
The Bookseller's Cathy Retzenbrink believes that Gallagher has made an "incredibly serious point", which is overstating the case. He's merely made an incredibly commonplace observation, and one which could be applied to anything that has minority appeal, including his brand of music. She adds excitedly that: "[h]e's saying what loads of people in this country think, but don't normally have a platform to say. There are vast amounts of people who feel this way, who do feel that people who are comfortable with words look down on them."
This is untrue. People who are 'comfortable with words' (whatever that means) do not as a rule look down on those who are not. Those who are uncomfortable with words may choose to feel that they are looked down upon, but that's their problem, and has more to do with poor self-esteem and a compensating sense of oppression and exclusion. This is understandable, but it's not an argument. I expect Noel Gallagher would find many reasons to look down on me, not least because my taste in music is even more bigoted than his taste in books, and because I don't have a personal fortune estimated at £60 million. If I had I expect I'd be tempted to spout bollocks about things I don't like or understand to attendant journalists. "He's saying what loads of people in this country think" says Retzenbrink. So is the oafish UKIP leader Nigel Farage, so what's her point? And what on earth does she mean by ordinary folk not having 'a platform' to express their dislike of literary fiction? They don't need one, in a popular culture that is nothing but one enormous platform championing the counter-literate, marginalising readers and endorsing pampered oafs like Gallagher. You won't see the late Dame Iris Murdoch elected 'Icon of the Year' by GQ magazine, or even, come to that, The Bookseller.
When a fading pop star decides to sway his biddable constituency with such gormless bigotry I feel I should speak up on behalf of those of us who still find a place for fiction in our lives - as writers, as readers, as reviewers. If Gallagher can find no space in his heart or brain for George Eliot or Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch or James Joyce or V. S. Pritchett or even Terry Pratchett - that's his loss. Those authors withstand his contempt. If the laddish readers of GQ find their own counter-literate tendencies articulated by this Icon of the Year (which seems a distinctly short-term honour) they can contentedly carry on being rowdy wankers in bars and pubs and clubs. If Cathy Retzenbrink has qualms about ordinary people not having a platform to whine about those of us who write and read and review fiction perhaps she's in the wrong job. There are likely to be more readers of fiction in Britain than there are Oasis fans, and there are probably more readers of novels in my part of North London alone than there are Oasis fans world-wide. Yet in one respect I find myself agreeing with Noel Gallagher. When I'm out of sympathy with a writer of fiction (and yes, it does happen), I find myself crossly and sceptically challenging everything they say, however innocuous. Thus when an author writes: It's a warm Kilburn afternoon when Mr Theodopolus flags down a passing taxi and tells the driver to take him to the Whittington hospital. My reaction, like Gallagher's, is to say: 'This isn't fucking true' before chucking the book away. Whereas when Orwell writes:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Well, I'll read on. And who, apart from Noel Gallagher, wouldn't?