I have just interviewed author Scarlett Thomas for the wonderful Mslexia, a magazine for women writers that should be read by anyone who writes. You can subscribe by clicking on this link. The interview concentrates on Scarlett’s latest novel, The End of Mr Y, and ranges into linguistics, Derrida, Nietzsche, deconstructing archetypes and writing workshops. It is in the winter issue, out next month.
One of the frustrations of interviews is the stuff you have to leave out. In this case it was a discussion about genre, celebrity and Madeleine McCann. I asked Scarlett about the Slipstream Movement (call me cynical, but I suspect “Slipstream” is an awkward attempt to validate the appropriation of genre by literary writers. If you call a novel Slipstream, so the thinking goes, the book will be reviewed and rated as ironic and post-modern, rather than looked down on as horror, sci fi or crime….).
Scarlett is equally awkward about the term. “I am still trying to get my head round the whole slipstream thing,” she says. “If you have a ghost does that make it horror fiction? Because Hamlet has a ghost in it.”
For her, pop culture content is about authenticity. “I think this goes for Steven Hall and other writers of my generation,” she explains. “By the time we were growing up you couldn’t avoid pop culture. If you are going to be authentic about the world around you then that stuff creeps in.”
This lead to a discussion about genre and the way media coverage of celebrities and news stories – such as the disappearance of a child – now reads like trashy fiction. It has to have a narrative arc – always towards triumph or tragedy. “Maybe we are living in an increasingly formulaic genre world, where all of these narratives from the way they have to put together the story of Madeleine McCann to every advert you watch, has to conform to a story?” Scarlett asks.
It is an interesting (and valid) question, and explains why we should be suspicious of the coverage of personal tragedies such as the McCann’s loss or the Diana crash. I have watched with interest during the McCann’s story the way that the Sun tries to play it both ways. One particularly nasty moment came when the McCanns were named aguidos (surely a contender for word of the year).
The Sun ran an insidious little column about how its hack had “always believed” Kate and Gerry, but now found suspicions creeping in. “Maybe, just maybe” he wrote. It was brilliantly written in terms of tabloid doublespeak. Turn a few pages on from this poisonous little piece and there was a double page spread of pictures of “Maddie” with the words: “Don’t you forget about me.” It made me want to vomit. Talk about wanting it both ways. Now Kate McCann is plastered across the pages – like the trash and burn lives of Kerry, Britney et al. This is not news. It is soap opera.
Newspapers only stick a face on the cover because it sells copies. At Media Week a few weeks ago we chatted about sales of papers during summer, it turns out the McCann story on the cover lifted circulation during a bad season.
So what does it say about us? Why do we have to turn women into archetypes of misery and self-destruction? Would the Maddie story have fascinated as much if, dare I say it, she or her mother had been less attractive? Would Fergie have dominated headlines if she had died in that tunnel rather than the prettier and less lively Diana? Why do we need beautiful, doomed princesses in our daily papers? And in a world where global warming is a threat and millions have died in an illegal war in Iraq thanks in part to our government, isn’t it about time we ditched the fairy tales to focus on what really matters?