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The hysteric moment

Novelists have increasingly faced the challenge of trying to compete with a culture that is a step ahead of them.

Just before Christmas five years ago, I spent an afternoon in the company of the novelist Zadie Smith and the literary critic James Wood (then of the New Republic, now of the New Yorker). I'd been asked by another magazine to oversee a conversation between Smith and Wood on "the future of the novel and the function of criticism". The idea was that they would continue a public colloquy that had begun in 2002, after Wood wrote a withering and pitiless review of Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man.

Wood had found the novel to be little more than a tissue of "smirking epigraphs" fatally in thrall to the example of American writers such as Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace, of whom he mostly disapproved. Eggers and Wallace were practitioners of something he called "hysterical realism" and their novels burned brightly with an unnourishing sub-Dickensian dazzle. These were smart guys writing big, ambitious books that tried to do nothing less than pin down and analyse an entire culture. And while they were busy practising cultural theory by fictional means, the novel's traditional quarries of character and consciousness got left behind. (In fact, Wallace's case was much more complicated than Wood tended to make it seem, and he actually shared many of the critic's misgivings about the moral and aesthetic legacy of postmodernism, of which hysterical realism could be said to be a variant or tributary.)

By Wood's account, the "hysterical realist" novel - the novel of "information" which can't decide if its job is simply to reflect the cognitive superabundance of life under late capitalism or, as they say in seminar rooms from Berkeley to Bloomsbury, to critique it - had, by the early 2000s, become one of, if not the, dominant mode in British and American fiction. And The Autograph Man, whose protagonist is a half-Chinese, half-Jewish dealer in the signatures of dead celebrities, faithfully mimics its most distinctive narrative tics - Smith is always pointing out, for instance, "that her characters, on the brink of a momentous access of feeling, are undermined by their sense that they are not ­being original, that TV has preceded them". An observation, Wood suggested, that it "may be time to retire".

That same afternoon, Smith told me that she had taken Wood's review "to heart" - and, indeed, you could see signs of this in several of the critical essays she wrote during this period for the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. These were much more likely to cite E M Forster than David Foster Wallace. There were further indications of this shift in her third novel, On Beauty, published in 2005, which was altogether more decorous than either The Autograph Man or her debut, White Teeth, and which she described as a "homage" to Forster (the book borrows its structure explicitly from Howards End). Now she and Wood were in agreement: "the culture [was] doing strange things to novels". Smith confessed that she found the "idea that you can't write a book without it being put through the processing machine of culture really quite frightening".

So, this was the sound of a generation dis­covering for itself a predicament described by Philip Roth in a celebrated essay published more than 40 years earlier, where he'd written that "the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist". For both Smith and Wood, none of their contemporaries had come closer to properly articulating these anxieties for the early 21st century than the American writer Jonathan Franzen. His sprawling third novel, The Corrections, published in 2001, was in part the product of several years' worth of agonised reflections on the place of fiction in a culture that was increasingly and aggressively indifferent to it.

In 1996, Franzen had written an essay for Harper's magazine, "Perchance to Dream", the arguments of which continued to reverberate in a certain stratum of the literary intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic in the early years of the new century. The "Harper's essay", as it became known, was both a 20-page howl of despair at the decline of the big, ambitious "social novel" that connects the personal with the societal and a kind of renunciation, in which Franzen declared that in fact the very idea of writing fiction which sought to "engage" with the culture should be given up, now that there are technologies - film and television, principally - that "do a much better job of social instruction".

That culture is so grossly productive of novelties that to engage with it, Franzen concluded, was to "risk writing fiction that [made] the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine . . ." If the improving ­mission of the novel of social instruction was at an end, what was left was the solace of "sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them".

The Harper's essay wasn't merely programmatic, however. Much of its considerable interest lay in its account of the genesis of The Corrections (indeed, few reviewers were able to resist using the piece as a lens through which to view the novel). Franzen recalled being "para­lysed" with what would become The Corrections. "I was torturing the story, stretching it to accommodate ever more of those things-in-the-world that impinge on the enterprise of fiction writing." He found that he couldn't help bulking up his "story" until it became "bloated with issues". Liberation, he implied, arrived once he realised he wasn't obliged to dramatise the "important issues of the day".

But The Corrections is not wholly successful in extricating itself from the horns of this di­lemma. Franzen found that it was much harder to give up the impulse to anatomise the culture than the Harper's essay had implied. And his failure to do so was symptomatic. "There are certain places in that novel," Smith said, "and I know I've written them myself in my novels, where the engagement is not with the novel as an organic form, with the characters, with the story, but is a matter of coming straight up to face the writer. It's not the novel I want to write and it's maybe not the novel a lot of people want to read any more. If the novel is going to stake its claim to being a separate part of the culture, then it needs not to be direct commentary."

It is tempting, in retrospect, to read those remarks of Smith's as setting out a programme - one that comes to fruition in "Two Directions for the Novel", an essay included in her most recent book, Changing My Mind. Here she describes Tom McCarthy's intricate, allegorical novel Remainder as an attempt to answer the question of how fiction might stake its claim to being a "separate part of the culture". But it is not clear from this how far she, and we, have travelled, because the dichotomy Smith presents - between the realist novel and the self-enclosed allegory - is pretty much the same one that Franzen was trying to think his way out of at the start of the decade.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

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

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus