The general excitement attending new novels during the 1980s has passed, but storytelling is on a roll
Kenneally, one of Australia's finest contemporary writers, is 77. Inevitably, the questions have turned to the past. With almost equal predictability, the veteran novelist has been sounding an elegiac note. In Sunday's Observer, he closed a Q&A about his life and work with "Fiction was king. Now it isn't."
He's right, of course. But also – profoundly – wrong.
Keneally's right to recall the palmy days of fiction, which happened to coincide with the moment when he was at the peak of his powers. In the English-speaking world of the 1980s (Schindler was published in 1982), fiction was indeed king, with poets and playwrights snapping at its heels.
Novelists were headline news. Waterstones was heaving with new fiction by a galaxy of brilliant young writers (Hanif Kureishi, Jeanette Winterson, Vikram Seth, Lorrie Moore and Michael Ondaatje among many others) mixed in with amazing translations (Kundera, Vargas Llosa, Márquez, Skvorecky). This fictional firework display was sustained by an explosion of hot money: big advances; movie deals; and global sales all contributed to an unprecedented boom in books that is now – definitively – over.
And now, where are we? On this day after the feast, new fiction might be no longer in its pomp, but it is far from dead. Indeed, from some points of view, it seems to be in excellent good health. Novels in all genres are selling as well as ever. Rumours of fiction's demise are surely exaggerated. Right now, at the end of the autumn book season, narrative is booming, and storytelling is on a roll. Consider the evidence.
First, there's the 2012 Booker prize. In advance of the final judging, plenty of commentators speculated about the innovative thrills of Will Self's Umbrella, and the dark power of Alison Moore's The Lighthouse. On the night, the panel recognised a virtuoso work of fiction, Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, her thrilling retelling of the downfall, trial, and death of Anne Boleyn. Here is a historical novel that satisfies highbrow critics and middle-brow readers alike. Fiction might not be king any more, but Mantel is certainly its queen.
Storytelling takes many forms, not just confined to fiction. The winner of the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize offers another example of raw narrative power. Everest will always exercise a spell over our imagination: it's a thriller and a killer. Wade Davis's clever and perceptive examination of the post-first world war impulses to Himalayan exploration Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest is a subtle account of a story many readers will have heard already. Just because it's not an original tale, doesn't mean that it cannot exercise its spell over the imagination.
Fiction has always been expressed in many guises, and novels now come in new and different formats. Last week, the Costa prize secured a little bit of extra coverage by shortlisting a graphic novel, Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart.
Shortly after that, the new chair of the next (2013) Booker prize, Robert Macfarlane declared his willingness to entertain graphic fiction on the Booker shortlist. Suddenly a lot of people are taking comic books very seriously indeed. If fiction is no longer king of the castle, it's certainly enjoying a vigorous life below stairs. Mr Keneally should take heart: there's life in the old dog yet.