Melbourne Herald Sun: Novelists shine light on world's cash woes

by Christopher Bantick (January 1 2009)

Published in the Melbourne Herald Sun here

DID you get a book for Christmas?

I did.

If it was a novel, it just might save you the angst of having to wrestle with the economic downturn.

"How?" I hear you say.

Well, according to researchers at Manchester University and the London School of Economics, fiction and - get this - even poetry, should be taken as seriously as facts-based research when seeking an insight into the issues of a modern world.

Dr Dennis Rogers, of Manchester University, believes fiction may help us understand these bleak economic times.

"Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job - if not a better one - of representing and communicating the realities of international development," he said recently.

The latest Man Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, comes in for special praise by the researchers for "its passionate depiction of the perils and pitfalls of rampant capitalism in contemporary India".

The miserly Scrooge, famous in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, who even refused to burn coal because he was so tight-fisted, nonetheless gives a message as relevant today as it was in Dickensian London.

That's the view of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a fellow of Magdalen College Oxford who is writing a biography of Dickens.

"For Dickens himself, money meant far more than the power to buy and sell," he said.

"Money brought people together and split them apart; it turned ordinary people into models of generosity or monsters of greed; it kept the world moving and was forever threatening to make it spin out of control."

Sound familiar? We only have to think of the collapse of the American sub-prime mortgage market, which pitched the world into its present sorry financial mess, to see the sense of what Dickens imagined to be a danger of money.

But if "literature is a luxury and fiction a necessity", as G.K. Chesterton suggested way back in 1901, the lessons and the insights fiction may offer still have detractors.

Tom Clougherty, the policy director of a conservative think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, thinks novels have their own dangers.

"There is a problem. Fiction works by appealing to people's emotions, not their intellect or rationality," he said.

"Fiction absolutely can't replace factual evidence-based analysis."

So could that novel you've been promising yourself to read when on holiday help you understand the changes and chances of this fleeting world? Maybe.

But what is clear is that books have defied all market predictions that they would suffer in the economic downturn.

Dave Fenlon, managing director of book chain Angus & Robertson, had this to say on why people were buying books in large numbers before Christmas when all the predictions were for a retail tsunami.

"We think that books are quite a resilient category," he said.

"People find them accessible, they're still a relatively cheap form of personal entertainment - and they are also somewhere you can escape."

That's something to think about as you lie back on the sand, watch your investments crumble and read about a fictionalised world that just might be closer to reality than you think.

Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and social commentator.

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