Archive for March, 2010

A novel approach to the news

“I see what I see very clearly. But I don’t know what I’m looking at.”
So says the anonymous narrator of the late Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel. If ever a sentence summed up a book, that has to to be it. Bemused readers at the Berwick weren’t sure what to make of the experiment in which Burn, who died last year, took the news stories from the summer of 2008 and melded them with strands of fiction to produce a peculiar new form. Some readers hated it and others admired it – but it was a great book group choice in one sense, because it sparked a┬álively and very different debate.
Before the meeting, I was unable to make up my mind about the book. It certainly was an easy read and although “enjoyable” was hardly the word, because the subject matter was often too traumatic, it was fascinating. My problem was whether or not Burn achieved his aim of turning the news into a novel, or did he end up with something more akin to reportage or cultural critique? For Ann, the novel worked because what Burn did, with his links and coincidences, was impose a structure on the events, which was more important than whether he “fictionalised” them enough. Others simply felt they’d been forced to rake back through a series of unpleasant, often disturbing news stories, for no good literary reason. In fact, the debate often veered away from the literary merits or otherwise of Born Yesterday to a discussion on the way news is reported and the way we respond to it.
The use of coincidences in the book was sly and sometimes unsettling. I admired the passages about Trimdon and certainly I think Burn’s central premise – that in these days of news saturation it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction – was worth the examination he gave it. Maisie and Janet both sensed that it had been rushed, particularly towards the end, and we wondered if Burn’s illness contributed to this. Mike suggested that David Peace, the author quoted on the front of our edition, is also worth reading as he too writes novels based on real events. But I think new member Hannah put her finger on the problem with Born Yesterday as a work of literature. Most fiction, she argued, allows us to use our imaginations. Here, the material was so familiar and recent that there was little scope for the reader’s imagination. And that may be where “the news as a novel” fell down in the literary stakes.
Do join us next month when we’ll be discussing the highly-acclaimed The Shadow of A Smile by Nigerian-born Kachi Ozumba. And Kim at Doolally’s has Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn now in paperback at a great discount, so do call in for your copy.
Next meeting: Tuesday 6th April, 6.30pm at Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

March 2010
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