Want to Understand the News of the Day? Read a Novel

Campus News

Bookmark and Share

Russell Guerrero '83
Nov. 14, 2011

Want to Understand the News of the Day? Read a Novel

Celebrated writer and DeCoursey Lecture Series guest Sir Salman Rushdie says literary fiction still indispensable in making sense of our times.

Decoursey Guest Sir Salman RushdieMedia saturation, the rise of celebrity culture, and the role of the novel in today's world were among the topics touched on by Sir Salman Rushdie, award winning author and cultural critic, as the guest speaker for Trinity University's DeCoursey Lecture Series. 

Wearing a grey shirt with charcoal grey slacks and jacket, Rushdie spoke to an audience of about 2,000 people on Monday, Nov. 7, in Laurie Auditorium.

Rushdie began his presentation acknowledging audience members using social media. "I think there are about a half dozen of you who tweeted at me, so hello to you, mysterious individuals," he said. He later added he has been actively using Twitter for about two months.

Rushdie then spoke on how literature must deal with the world we live in.

The novel, said Rushdie, has had a long history of functioning as a source for news. Novels would inform readers about society and provide information about their country. For example, in the Victorian era, readers of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby were appalled to learn about the terrible conditions of schools for England's poor children. Outrage led to the British Parliament passing legislation outlawing practices written about in the book.

Today, however, with so many ways to receive news and information, conventional wisdom would appear to be that novels no longer have a main function to bring people news of what is really happening, said Rushdie, adding to some extent, that might be true.

But Rushdie said he feels the proliferation of media actually provides less credible information. "I can't help noticing the hollowness of much of what is passed off as news," he said.

This includes the current obsession with celebrity culture.

"I noticed, very depressingly, a newspaper article recently which said that Snooki from The Jersey Shore was apparently being paid more to come and speak to universities than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate," he said, adding he worries about what is happening to the media when these are the kinds of stories that dominate the news.

Rushdie told the audience there was evidence the conventional news media are less able to "perform the job of bringing us information" due in part to economics and because many traditional newspapers are dying. 

At the same time, the Internet does not yet have the resources to provide the type of coverage that traditional media provided. With this in mind, Rushdie said he believes there is still a place for creative artists and writers to present news and information to fill the gap, giving more details than what is supplied in a headline news format. He gave the example of literary writers, he felt, who were doing a better job of covering the Occupy Wall Street movement than mainstream press.

The reason for a critical look at the media is because stories are fundamental to understanding ourselves and our society.

"We are the story telling animal," he told the audience. "We rely on stories as a way of knowing who we are." That also goes for the grand narratives in our lives, such as the stories of family, religion, and nation, he said.

In a free society, Rushdie said, everyone has the right to argue about the story. "The argument itself, you could say, is liberty. The idea that you are able to argue about your society; to change and retell the story of your society," he said.

This as opposed to a closed society, where people in the government control the narrative and how it is told.

"That it seems to me - if you don't have power over the story - the definition of tyranny," said Rushdie. "And here's the strange thing: the novel becomes frightening to people in power, because it doesn't pay attention to their attempts to tell us how to tell the story."

This often has a harmful effect on the writer.

"Literature survives. Writers are the people in trouble," said Rushdie. "Yet I think all those writers, struggling against power - in spite of those dangers -will say nevertheless, that's the job."

The DeCoursey Lecture Series is made possible by the late Gen. Elbert DeCoursey and Mrs. DeCoursey of San Antonio.