The News as a Novel

Gordon Burn and the ability to "disclose that which exists"

The writer and novelist Gordon Burn died last week at the age of 61. Few English writers have taken as seriously as Burn did Philip Roth's famous observations about what the "culture" does to the novel. Contemplating "American reality" in 1960, Roth wrote that the novelist has "his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make [it] credible ... It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist."

Burn understood that this was the predicament of any novelist trying to anatomise English reality in the early twenty-first century. His solution was to turn the novel into news. In an interview given a little over a year ago, Burn described his last book Born Yesterday, in which he uses the two salient news stories of the summer of 2007 (the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the resignation of Tony Blair) as foils to his imagination, as a kind of "found object":

[T]he narrative was largely given, as were all of the main 'characters' - Blair, Brown, the McCanns, Kate Middleton, John Smeaton - other than the narrator. The imaginative challenge - and therefore what in my view makes Born Yesterday a novel - came in making connections that hadn't previously been apparent. John Berger once said something that struck me very forcibly, and that I recalled continually in the writing of this book: 'Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists.' So it was about looking; about sifting, and sitting still and thinking.

The judgement of his editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, that this ability to "disclose that which exists" made Burn "as crucial to our understanding of ourselves as De Lillo is to American culture" doesn't seem in the least hyperbolic.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Why a Keeping Up with the Kardashians cartoon would make genuinely brilliant TV

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists.

You’ve seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take Kyoto, and Kylie and Kendall Klarify Kommunications Kontracts, but the latest Kardashian show might take a step away from reality. Yes, Kartoon Kardashians could be on the way. According to TMZ, an animated cartoon is the next Kardashian television property we can expect: the gossip website reports that Kris Jenner saw Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. production company earlier this month for a pitch meeting.

It’s easy to imagine the dramas the animated counterparts of the Kardashians might have: arguments over who gets the last clear plastic salad bowl? Moral dilemmas over whether or not to wear something other than Balenciaga to a high profile fashion event? Outrage over the perceived betrayals committed by their artisanal baker?

If this gives you déjà vu, it might be because of a video that went viral over a year ago made using The Sims: a blisteringly accurate parody of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that sees the three sisters have a melodramatic argument about soda.

It’s hysterical because it clings onto the characteristics of the show: scenes opening with utter banalities, sudden dramatic music coinciding with close-ups of each family member’s expressions, a bizarre number of shots of people who aren’t speaking, present tense confessionals, Kim’s ability to do an emotional 0-60, and Kourtney’s monotonous delivery.

But if the Kardashians, both as a reality TV show and celebrity figures, are ripe for ridicule, no one is more aware of it than the family themselves. They’ve shared teasing memes and posted their own self-referential jokes on their social channels, while Kim’s Kimoji app turned mocking viral pictures into self-depreciating in-jokes for her fans. And the show itself has a level of self-awareness often misinterpreted as earnestness - how else could this moment of pure cinema have made it to screen?

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists, and they’ve perfected the art of making fun of themselves before anyone else can. So there’s a good chance that this new cartoon won’t be a million miles away from “Soda Drama”. It might even be brilliant.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.