It might be an unfashionable notion, but fiction can teach us things and make us better people, argues John Sutherland Saturday September 2, 2006
Grand claims have been made for the novel - none grander than that of DH Lawrence, for whom it was "the one bright book of life". For some, at the other extreme, the novel has been the one bright book of death. It is plausibly argued, for example, that Graham Young, the UK's most notorious mass poisoner, celebrated in the 1995 film The Young Poisoner's Handbook, was inspired in his use of the "undetectable" poison, thallium, by Agatha Christie's novel The Pale Horse (1961). Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the worst civilian atrocity in American history - the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City - took his inspiration from William L Pierce's The Turner Diaries.
Less homicidal readers than Young and McVeigh have found novels to be useful manuals. In late December 2005 British government documents of 30 years earlier were declassified. Prominent among them were those relating to the case of John Stonehouse, the MP who in 1974 faked his death and embarked on a new life in Australia as "Joseph Markham" with his mistress Sheila Buckley.
Stonehouse had created a new identity for himself from the instructions offered in Frederick Forsyth's 1971 thriller The Day of the Jackal. The now notorious paragraph in the novel beginning "there is nothing easier than getting a false passport" has been drawn on over the decades by IRA cells and whole armies of illegal immigrants, by benefits fraudsters and, most recently, identity thieves. Apparently Forsyth himself has instructed the Home Office on how they might close the "Jackal loophole", but without success. It remains gapingly open.
For the law-abiding, fiction also has its manifold practical uses. In the 19th century, the period of its most rapid hot-house growth, the novel developed, as one of its many parts, into a middle-class manual of conduct. Anthony Trollope, when asked what good his novels did society, liked to reply that they instructed maidens how they should receive their suitors. Jane Austen's novels (like those of her literary descendant, Helen Fielding, of Bridget Jones's Diaries fame) are similarly instructional about the big question in a young woman's life: whom should I marry? A Mr Collins, a Mr Darcy, or no one?
Miss Austen, having accepted her own suitor, decided - after a night's second thoughts - that it would, after all, be no one. One would like to think that chewing the issues over so thoroughly in her novels helped in the decision. Oddly, none of her heroines opts for spinsterhood, and those that are left on the shelf are no advertisement for the single woman past her "bloom". For a woman, said Jacqueline Susann (not one of Jane's more distinguished literary descendants), "forty is Hiroshima". Miss Austen would have agreed, but, on the evidence of Persuasion, would have located the catastrophe at 27.
It is unfashionable to assert it, but the novel does, I believe, still have a socio-educational value. It is not just Miss Manners. Fiction can make us better, or at least, better informed citizens. In a technological age, for example, it is important that the population should know something about the machinery that makes modern life possible and how it works. Science fiction has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since CP Snow's 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons' epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. The fact, revealed in a survey by the magazine Wired in November 2005, that 40 per cent of Americans believe that aliens are in the habit of routinely visiting our planet and taking away sample earthlings for full body cavity probes, suggests that sf may also have a lot to answer for in dumbing down the citizenry.
Michael Crichton's career is a prime example for those, like myself, who want to believe that sf wises up more than it dumbs down. Crichton's The Andromeda Strain was the first true title in the genre to make it to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, in 1969. The novel's breakthrough is attributable to the fact that its descriptions of space hardware (what computers do, for example) made the concurrent moon landings comprehensible to the American population. Crichton's vastly successful Jurassic Park (1990) later introduced a whole generation, via the beloved dinosaur, to the intricacies of Crick and Watson's Nobel-winning discoveries about DNA and the complexities of chaos theory (something that Steven Spielberg prudently left out of the film version).
How much we can trust fiction, even fiction as laboriously researched as Crichton's, to be our educator, remains a moot question. On the strength of his 2004 bestseller, State of Fear, the novelist was invited to testify in 2005 before a US Senate committee investigating climate change. The book is a techno-thriller based on the premise that the greenhouse gas thesis is a gigantic scam, as fallacious as was eugenics in the early 19th century and alchemy in the 17th. And dangerous. The politicians and oil barons love him.
Crichton is unusual in being a novelist with degrees in medicine from Harvard. Why, then, wouldn't he know more about things scientific than some columnist? The fact is, no one knows the accuracy of what Crichton knows, or thinks he knows. Crichton is as likely to be wrong about climate change as he was about the imminent Japanese takeover of America, as outlined in his "Wake up, America!" novel, Rising Sun. Shortly after its publication, the Tokyo real estate market collapsed and the Japanese economy became a basket case.
Readers can still enjoy State of Fear, whether they go along with Crichton or not. And, whatever else, those who get through the book will probably know more about the issues than they did before and may even be stimulated to find out yet more. This kind of clueing- up ("education" is too grand term) can be found in much fiction read, primarily, for enjoyment or distraction. Arthur Hailey, for example, built a bestselling career on novels that explained to the averagely uninformed citizen how modern travel works (Airport, 1968), how Detroit produces automobiles (Wheels, 1971), how banks make their money and look after ours (The Moneychangers, 1975). Hailey's "researched" fiction, which consistently made the number one spot in the 1960s and 1970s, left its reader more knowledgeable as well as entertained. Trollope would have approved, although the one thing that Hailey's info-fiction does not help with is how maidens should receive their gentleman admirers.
Coming to the present, and plucking a couple of examples from the early 2006 shelves, an excellent analysis of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear fuel, is given in Martin Cruz Smith's latest Arkady (Gorky Park) Renko thriller, Wolves Eat Dogs (2004). Against the backdrop of cases such as that of reformed murderer "Tookie" Williams - something that may cost Governor Schwarzenegger dear at the next election - Richard North Patterson's intricate exposition of the California appellate court system as it affects death row inmates makes up the plot of Conviction (2005). Both these are main-course airport novels. But, beneath the thrillerish sugar coating, they are informational. I put them down knowing more than I did before about what is making headlines and, arguably, current history.
Novels can do many things। They can instruct, enlighten, confuse, mislead, soothe, excite, indoctrinate, misinform, educate and waste time। Each novel has its own rewards, or frustrations। And, at their highest pitch of achievement, novels can indeed be the one bright book of life. The trick is finding which, among the millions now accessible, fits that bill. For you, that is. And that, as Virginia Woolf told us, is something no one can tell you. Or, if they do, ignore them.This is an edited extract from How to Read a Novel, published by profile. To order a copy for £9.99 with free Uk p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875, or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop