IN April, the writer Gordon Burn will publish a book called Born Yesterday The News as a Novel, which, according to the publisher's come-on, will weave recent headline events, including 'the disappearances of Madeleine McCann and Tony Blair', into fiction.

Burn, a notable cultural observer, has, not for the first time, spotted a shift in how the world works — because most consumers of the media in recent months must have done nervous double-takes, checking that the big, thin sheets of newsprint in their hands are not, in fact, fat hardback thrillers.

The news has become a kind of super-fiction, in which one unlikely and inexplicable yarn after another — The Portugal Child, The Perugia Murder, The Deadly Teddy Bear, The Secret Donor, The Panamanian Canoeist — play out across newspaper pages.

The suggestion that journalism has become more like fiction is a pretty ancient insult but, in the past, was used to accuse reporters of fabrication. Now, though, something deeper and weirder frequently occurs in which, even when facts are accurately reported, they seem, in the proper sense of the word, fabulous. Whereas most news stories follow a grimly recognisable narrative — the sex murder, the drive-by shooting, the inflated expenses claim — recent real-life plots are dense, messy and seemingly insoluble in a way that usually requires the manipulations of a novelist.

This sense of events feeling invented is not entirely new. For several decades, writers have toyed with the idea that, whether or not truth is stranger than fiction, it is sometimes indistinguishable from it.

Norman Mailer alluded to this blurring in a 1960s phrase about 'the novel as history, history as a novel', while the French thinker Jean Baudrillard, with his theory of 'hyper-reality', argued that humans, unable to make sense of the complexities of the modern world, experienced real events as if they were fantasy. Yet such ideas — as the concept of Burn's novel acknowledges — have now truly found their time.

The obvious temptation is to blame journalism, and it's certainly true that these blockbuster news stories are partly shaped by the fact that today's journalists (in print and television) have much more space and much less fear of legal censure than did their predecessors. But I think the news increasingly feels like a novel or screenplay because so many people now live like figures in fiction, defining themselves as 'characters' within what artistic criticism calls a 'structured narrative'.

This is a result of the new technology of self-expression. Both Amanda Knox, who is a suspect in the murder in Perugia of Meredith Kircher, and Anne Darwin, the wife of the canoeist who vanished for five years, helpfully had Facebook or MySpace entries, full of useful narrative details that, in previous such cases, would not have reached the public until the publication of a memoir or a trial. The Perugia suspect

even, in a self-novelistic flourish, provided herself with a pejorative nickname — 'Foxy Knoxy'.

Anne Darwin also seems to have been located by the media and police through her internet exhibitionism, as was another suspect in the Italian killing. This vivid jet trail, which so many people now willingly leave behind them, clearly assists anyone who has the desire to read the news like a book.

Lord Lucan, a '70s news sensation, could not plausibly have been the subject of his hyper-real reporting for the practical reason that, at the end of chapter one, the storytellers couldn't answer the simple question of where he went next. These days, even an aristocrat who had murdered his children's nanny and done a bunk would probably have left behind a helpful blog outlining the plot and a telltale weblink to ferry timetables and high tides.

Now, however, it has become good form to tell your own tale all the time. Though of different generations, Amanda Knox and Anne Darwin are both true products of their age — enthusiastically, through journalists and surrogates, putting out 'stories' that, because they contain tantalising holes and contradictions, have the effect that skilful novelists achieve by complicating the possibilities and concealing the solution.

It's also striking that, as happened in the history of the novel and the play, the range of people likely to be the subject of such stories has democratised. Whereas O.J. Simpson, who probably started this phenomenon, was already famous before becoming notorious, the McCanns, Darwins and Knoxes were all unknown until they became involved in cataclysmic happenings. These stories encourage personal identification what if it had been a child or a partner of ours?

The risk of experiencing reality in this way is that we forget that human beings are involved; but it also seems possible that some of these actuality protagonists — the Darwins, for example, or Knox — have themselves failed at times to realise that they were living in a life rather than a story. But however it has happened, Gordon Burn is right. The news is now a novel or a movie.

— Dawn/ Guardian Service

Updated Mar 09, 2008 12:00am

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