- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

We have heard an awful lot about financial bubbles lately, but the literary world has known its ludicrous moments of intoxication, too. New York announces the discovery of that elusive beast, the Great American Novel, every autumn. Grotesque advances are paid to first-time novelists straight out of Oxford who duly disappear without a trace after failing in their overnight attempt to become the new Charles Dickens.

Fashions come and go at a relentless rate. The hot talent in London right now, for instance, is the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano, whose novels have become essential acquisitions in the last few months. To spend time in a salon in NW1 and not to have a ready-made opinion about “The Savage Detectives” or “2666” is to risk becoming the subject of pitying looks.

Another name on everyone’s lips, or so it seems, is Vikas Swarup, although in the case of the Indian diplomat-turned-author, the coverage illustrates the extent to which the movies set the agenda, here as in America. Few people, I suspect, are familiar with Mr. Swarup’s debut novel “Q&A,” but most have heard of the film version that could well become one of the success stories of this year’s Oscar ceremony. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” a low-budget melodrama set in the lower depths of Mumbai (the former Bombay), is this year’s equivalent of “Chariots of Fire.” Adapted by Simon Beaufoy — the screenwriter who was also responsible for that earlier Brit hit, “The Full Monty” — the film is being marketed as a feel-good vision of the new, globalized India.

All of which is fine with me, except that when I went to see the film, I was astonished by how clumsy and superficial the tale turned out to be. It probably didn’t help that I happened to be in the middle of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory” when I decided to make my trip to the multiplex: Compared with the great man’s dense, brooding landscapes, most films are going to appear one-dimensional, I suppose. But there is a particularly shallow quality to “Slumdog.” Some of the acting — especially from the younger members of the cast — is exceptional, but if you can imagine being subjected to a feature-length version of an MTV video with a hint of saffron and chili, you have a sense of how I felt as I stumbled out of the darkness, my senses reeling. (Just for the record, my wife, who is Indian, had exactly the same reaction.)

Not for the first time, I had a depressing glimpse of how literature and mainstream movies are drifting apart. The elements I value in a good novel —character, ambiguity, complexity — are increasingly hard to find on the big screen. Yes, I know t’was ever thus, and I am aware that there are important exceptions. But the trend is unmistakable. And given that a new British survey suggests that the average 5- to 16-year-old spends nearly six hours a day in front of a TV, playing computer games or surfing the Internet, it is hard to see the pattern being reversed. Inevitably, the reading of books has declined. As one researcher put it: “38 percent of 9- to 14-year-old girls take the games console to bed at night. That is the age group of girls who used to be the most avid readers. Now they have a media hub in their rooms.”

Of course, it’s always possible that I am being overly gloomy. I am certainly willing to believe that the rising generation is simply acquiring a different but no less sophisticated arsenal of cultural skills. But the acclaim for drama as mediocre as “Slumdog” leads me to think that we really are losing our grip. It doesn’t help, either, that the books pages of our national newspapers look increasingly beleaguered. (The Telegraph’s literary editor has become the latest casualty of the shift away from specialist coverage.) American readers will be all too aware of how the U.S. media is struggling to maintain quality control. Britain, which is so often portrayed as the sedate land of “Masterpiece Theater,” faces a crisis of its own, too.


As you may know, we lost Sir John Mortimer this month. The creator of “Rumpole of the Bailey” and many other works besides had been in increasingly frail health for months, yet his passing, at the age of 85, still came as a blow. I interviewed him for this newspaper about eight years ago after he had published “The Summer of a Dormouse” an elegant, self-deprecating memoir devoted to the trials — and occasional rewards — of growing old. I have been dipping into its pages again this week, savoring its wisdom and relaxed humor. One other volume of reminiscences, “Murderers and Other Friends” — a reference to Sir John’s long and distinguished career at the Bar — has also been keeping me company. Conventional wisdom insists that he was something of a second-division talent with a polished prose style and an instinct for commercial success (as well as an eye for the ladies). Gifted, yes, but not profound. Perhaps that is true. But I would not be surprised if his work lasts longer than that of many a more fashionable name.

Clive Davis writes for The Times and blogs for The Spectator at www.spectator.co.uk/clivedavis.

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