170. Is verbosity always bad?

Judges for the 2018 Man Booker Prize appealed to authors to edit. “Occasionally we felt that inside the book we read, was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said chair of the judging panel, Kwame Anthony Appiah.

I have great sympathy with this appeal. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post bemoaning the sharp increase in the length of novels after 1950. I also remarked there that this is an odd phenomenon in age in which, we are told, attention  span is shortening and instant gratification is the norm.

The modern reader, confronted with this opening of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, might be expected to scrawl TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) and move on:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The reason for the discrepancy between short attention span and long novels is probably that the novels I used for comparative analysis are those that received critical approval, not necessarily those from the mass market.

Though I enjoy brevity, I want to make a few points here in defence of verbosity:

  1. To be verbose is not necessarily to be imprecise. The opposite of verbose is “succinct”, not “precise”.
  2. There is pleasure to be had in lush description.
  3. Verbosity has real narrative function.

Look back at the Dickens excerpt. What is he telling us? He is writing about the era of the French revolution, and contrasting two opposed worlds: one of radical change and the other of conservative stasis. He could, of course, have just said that. Instead, he makes us experience the contradiction. In the mode of the writing coach, I might say he “shows” us, rather than “tells” us. And, surely, that is the job of the writer—to allow us to live for a moment in another’s reality.

Excessive description (with a few exceptions like the Biblical Song of Solomon) is largely absent from literature before the advent of the modem novel. Just take a look at Homer’s spare prose, if you doubt this.

The classics of earlier eras are plot-rich. There was little drive to explore the inner life of protagonists because their goodness or evil was a function of their actions, not their thoughts and feelings. These stories were created for homogeneous communities with a shared understanding of the world. So, exploration of inner worlds would have been superfluous.They also describe worlds where change generally came slowly and yesterday was much like today.

Today, many of us live in diverse communities where the pace of change is dizzyingly fast. Understanding that diversity and capturing the fleeting present is one of the functions of description in fiction.

If I want to understand you, I need to appreciate your perception and your motivation, not just your actions. We all experience things differently. And, perhaps, the modern obsession with recording everything, and of “making memories” rather than simply experiencing things, is the clue to why verbosity matters.  If the slow world of the past generated stories full of fast action, our fast world needs slow stories that capture the moments before they’re gone.

169. Reaching one thousand views

One of my blog posts has surpassed one thousand reads. It deals with the art of descriptive writing.

The second most popular is on the distinction between Magic  Realism, Fantasy and Surrealism. And the third deals with how to write sex.

I wondered why these three should be the most popular. They’re not necessarily my best posts. The answer, I thought probably lay in the way search engines work. A post is likely to be read if it (a) deals with a topic that is often searched for; and (b) has relatively few competitors, so it’s thrown up on the first page of a search.

My post on descriptive writing appears on the first page in a search for “The art of descriptive writing”, and my Magic Realism post appears as number one on the list generated by the search string “Magic  Realism, Fantasy and Surrealism”.

And yet my sex writing post does not appear in the first three pages of results in response to either “How to Write Sex” or “Writing Sex”.  That was curious, and I investigated further. For the first three years since it was posted, it averaged 23 reads a year. And then it took off, rising to 165 reads in the fourth year, 196 the following year, and 395 so far this year. So perhaps this post achieved its popularity by word of mouth. But the descriptive writing post showed the same pattern, while the magic realism post rose and then declined in popularity.

There is also no magic virtue in the “how to” theme. For example, a post, How to succeed as a novelist: the facts, has garnered only 48 reads in its lifetime, and Crafting Powerful Scenes only 20.

I’m mystified. If anyone can explain it to me, please get in touch.

166. Grammar snobs and imaginary mistakes

My uncle was a headmaster and an English teacher by profession. I once asked him if he knew the poet, e.e. cummings. He replied “No, I haven’t had that pleasure. If you mean, do I know of him, the answer is yes.” We’ve all encountered grammar snobs and writers’ inboxes bulge with well-meaning suggested corrections from friends and colleagues. The interesting thing is that, often, the suggestions invoke rules that don’t exist.

Rule 1: Never start a sentence with a conjunction

Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? Many people believe the answer is no. But, grammatically, it’s fine. See? I started that sentence with the conjunction “but” (“and” is another common conjunction and “or” another).

What was effect of using “but” there? I could have written it as “Many people believe the answer is no, but, grammatically, it’s fine.”  Separating the thoughts with a full stop rather than a comma is a way of emphasising the contrast (“On the one hand this. But, in fact, on the other hand, that”).

The truth is you can start a sentence with a conjunction if it feels right. Bear in mind, though, that some people will think it’s a grammatical mistake and be pulled out of the flow.  Also (another conjunction), don’t overuse it, or your writing will start to seem choppy.

Rule 2: Never end a sentence with a preposition

Ending a sentence with a preposition is a mistake up with which you should not put. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? It’s much more natural to say “Ending a sentence with a preposition is a mistake which you should not put up with.” Again, this is perfectly grammatical. There is no rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s simply less formal.  Prepositions are words like to, up, at, in, of, for, with, etc. They show the relationship between one thing and another. If you are writing formally (such as in a report) you might want to avoid ending sentences with prepositions.  For example, you’d probably be better advised to say  in court “That’s the town in which I live”, rather than “That’s the town which I live in.”

Ruler 3: Never split an infinitive

This rule is an odd one. It wasn’t introduced formally until the nineteenth century and was gone by the end of the twentieth. Three generations were taught that it is grammatically incorrect “to boldly go”. 

An infinitive is a verb with its “to” suffix. When an adverb is inserted into between the ”to” and the verb, the infinitive is “split”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says “”the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.”

Rule 4: Never use adverbs

Don’t even get me started on this one.  Stephen King famously said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”. Yet, across 51 books, he used an average of 105 adverbs per 10,000 words. That’s more than Ernest Hemingway (at 80 per 10,000 words. Also more than six other famous writers, but less than E.L. James at 155 per 10,000 words.  The rule is silly. Adverbs do a job—modifying verbs, as adjectives modify nouns. Of course, they should not be used where all they’re doing is strengthening weak verbs. Enough said.

Rule 5:

There really should be fifth rule to debunk, if only for reasons of number magic. Five sounds complete, whereas four sounds slapdash.  Oh dear.

162. People do not have as much character as portrayed in novel

By convention, we think of character as the essence of the novel. At least of the literary novel. Or, at least of the Western literary novel.

I picked some writing advice from a random internet search: Masterclass has this to say:

“While a mastery of plot can help you develop exciting twists and turns, great character development draws readers in by giving them strong characters with whom they can identify…A novel consists of a character interacting with events over time.”


Someone told me that once you have a character with a want, you have the beginnings of a plot.

But, of course, the idea that stories should be about characters striving to achieve their goal is a comparatively new one in story-telling, and depends on historical preconditions. These include the development of the belief that what goes on in other people’s heads is interesting, and the existence of societies in which it’s meaningful for individuals to strive towards goals.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has an interesting take on the primacy of character.

“The aspect of the human being we call ‘character’ is a historical construct and,…just like our own psychological and emotional makeup, the character of literary figures is an artifice we choose to believe in… Since I believe that the essential aim of the art of the novel is to present an accurate depiction of life, let me be forthright. People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels, especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels…

“Furthermore, human character is not nearly as important in the shaping of our lives as it is made out to be in the novels and literary criticism of the West. To say that character-creation should be the primary goal of the novelist runs counter to what we know about everyday human life…In the beginning, there are patterns formed by people, objects, stories, images, situations, beliefs, history, and the juxtaposition of all these things—in other words, a texture…

“The character of my novel’s main protagonist is determined the same way a person’s character is formed in life: by the situations and events he lives through…The defining question of the art of the novel is not the personality or character of the protagonists, but rather how the universe within the tale appears to them…

“Novelists do not first invent a protagonist with a very special soul, and then get pulled along, according to the wishes of this figure, into specific subjects or experiences. The desire to explore particular topics comes first. Only then do novelists conceive the figures who would be most suitable for elucidating these topics.”

Orhan Pamuk, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist pp 67-77, Faber & Faber 2011

Note that he is not denying the premise that readers become immersed through characters.  He is saying that character is a product of a wider interplay of forces (what he calls texture) than simply a want. This texture is shaped by landscape, class, gender, and ethnicity. Character brings those forces to life.  As a writer who was shaped by successive periods of military rule in Turkey, he is probably more sensitive to historical and political forces than are his Western counterparts.

161. Is originality essential?

Does a story have to be original to succeed? Indeed, can a story ever be original?

The answer may depend on how we define the term, story. I’m going to distinguish here between the terms, “plot” and “story”. A plot is the WHAT of a tale: what happens and to whom. A story is the HOW, the way the plot is related: in what sequence, with what stylistic devices.

There have been repeated claims that there’s only one story (Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth ) or seven (Christopher Brooker) or 31 (Vladimir Propp). Other thinkers suggest other numbers. In all cases, what they are talking about it plot, not story.

Even if there were only one plot, there might be a large (perhaps infinite) number of ways of telling it. Consider these examples of basic plots and their realisations:

Characters converge — usually in high school or university — and then diverge. But changed!
The Group, Mary McCarthy
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte
A swindler is double-crossed, either out of vengeance or greed
The Grifters, Jim Thompson
The Mark Inside, Amy Reading
A character’s fall
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf T
The protagonist is deceived until the scales fall from her eyes
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Forbidden Love
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
A woman turns down proposals of convenience and settles on an unexpected Mr. Right
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Jane Eyre, Charlotte BronteBridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
More at https://www.vulture.com/2016/08/encyclopedia-of-every-literary-plot-ever.html  

So, while plots may not be original, stories can be. What devices turn a plot into an original story?

Originality – whatleydude

  • The words. Evocative language can turn a pedestrian plot into a thing of beauty.
  • Characterisation. People are individual, and endlessly fascinating in the way they act and see the world.
  • The point of view. Relating The Three Little Pigs from the Wolf’s point of view creates a fresh story.
  • The point of telling. This is the location in the plot from which the author starts to tell the story. A tale told from the middle or the end can feel very different from one told in sequence.

In these senses, a story can be original. Indeed, it must be original. If a story doesn’t resonate and hum, give me a sense of something fresh, a new insight, a new way of seeing a familiar problem, why would I want to read it?

160.       The future isn’t what it used to be

I remember the future I was promised so long ago. There would be flying cars, and Dick Tracey watches that allowed you to communicate by speaking into your wrist. We got the Dick Tracey watches (cellphones), but not the flying cars or personal jet packs. Nor did we get colonies in space or universal plenty. But we got other stuff that nobody predicted.

We got a climate crisis and degradation of the environment: wildfires, floods, and famine. And a pandemic. And, so far from universal plenty, it seems we don’t have enough truck drivers to guarantee food delivery to the shops, or enough carers to look after the frail and elderly.

It would be easy to be scared. Apocalypse novels sell by the thousands. There’s a lot around that’s scarey. But perhaps there always has been. A generation ago, we were terrified by the threat of nuclear annihilation. And we survived. A generation before that, there was the World War to defend civilization. And a generation before that, the War to End All Wars. There was a pandemic in that generation too.

Yet, we survived. To survive now we need to be able to re-imagine a future we want to live in. Because crises don’t just go away by themselves—we have to want a change and work for it. A world without the vested interests of big oil and the snooping of big tech. Clean cheap energy. Food, shelter and a meaningful life for everyone. That seems worth working for, and it’s within our grasp. What would be the path towards that? Perhaps we need story-tellers to help us visualize that future.

158. Stories as feel-good therapy

What are stories for? According to a provocative book by Angus Fletcher, they are technologies invented (or discovered) to help us deal with life experience. They are psychotherapeutic tools.

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature reviews the blueprints for literary technologies that Fletcher claims can be scientifically  shown to alleviate grief. trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. He argues that they can be found throughout literature from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays.

His aim is to subvert centuries of literary scholarship, asking not “what is this story about” but rather “what are its effects on us”.  You might say, at the risk of anti-intellectualism, narrative are not to be studied but experienced.

He gives each of these technologies an annoying name. For example, the Hurt Delay (giving us distance on trauma), with which he explores Sophocles’ Oedipus; and the Almighty Heart (instilling courage), with which he explores Homer’s Iliad. He explores the neurobiology of fear and courage through the origins of fear in the amygdala, and the neuropharmacological response in the counterbalancing releases of adrenaline and oxytocin.

I have to first acknowledge that it is beautifully and engagingly written. And to applaud his sentiment that stories are there to be enjoyed. And then I have to confess to a strong distaste for its underlying framework.

The distaste isn’t that of a literary scholar. Granted, Fletcher takes immense liberties with the context of the works he cites and of their authors’ probable intents. He claims, for example, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet stages a play about a king murdered by his brother as a tribute to his dead father. Generations of literature students have known that the play’s purpose is so that Hamlet can observe his uncle’s reaction and gauge his guilt for the murder.

He may well also be accused of playing fast and loose with the chronology of literary creation. But these sins would be easily forgivable if they serve to expose a deeper reality.

Nor is my distaste for the neurobiological exploration of narrative. Any thing in the universe is a potential object for scientific investigation. Though I’m not always persuaded by Fletcher’s piecing together of the neuronal circuitry.

No, my distaste comes from elsewhere. It relates to an approach that is simultaneously totalizing and reductionist. The vogue for totalizing explanations of narrative passed in the 1950s. Northrop Frye https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_of_Criticism created a taxonomy of literature. Fraser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough, and then later Joseph Campbell, claimed to find universal underlying stories across all times and all cultures—the hero with a thousand faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces, which then gave rise to mechanical “Hero’s Quest” template for story-writing.

These were ideas of their time, when the world, and consequently scholarship, were in the grip of totalizing systems. They were superceded by ideas of a later time, which emphasised context and cultural diversity. I make no claim that the earlier ideas were wrong and the modern fashion right. Merely that they are more to my taste. I’m not even sure it’s possible to prove literary criticism ideas right or wrong.

What concerns me about Fletcher’s reprise of an earlier era’s concerns is that it is forced to strip stories of their specificity. And that specificity is the source of their delight. The one-sentence summary “The spoiled Emma’s pride makes her prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, though they eventually realize they’re perfect for each other” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/one-sentence-guides-to-16_b_98480 tells the reader little about whether they’ll enjoy Pride and Prejudice. The specificity of the story-telling is everything.

Stories are produced by cultures, not neurons, as Laura Miller observes in a critical essay on the book https://slate.com/culture/2021/03/wonderworks-angus-fletcher-review.html.  She notes that culture determines “who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc.” She accuses Fletcher of a “calculating utilitarianism” which reduces literature and reading to a feel-good therapy. His enterprise rests on the totalising universalism that argues that human beings face relatively unchanging problems created by the way our brains work and that a set of enterprising literary entrepreneurs have been steadily inventing solutions to these problems.

He has ignored all the specificity and cultural diversity that created the epic poetry of the classical and pre-classical eras. These epics were about gods, about fate, about heroism. He has ignored all the factors that had to come into existence before stories could be about individual people and their feelings. Laura Ashe https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/invention-fiction, for example, argues that for fiction, as we know it today in the West, to come into existence, we had first to develop the notion that individuals and their feelings mattered. She writes:

“In Old English poetry, to be an individual, cut off from these collective bonds, is to be lost. More than this, there is no attention to an inner life that can be meaningfully distinguished from exterior action. Will the warrior make good on his boasts in the mead hall? Only in action is a man’s value known; intention is nothing.”

 What changed, she argues is a set of economic, political and theological conditions in twelfth century England that permitted a literature in which The Romance could flourish. “This,” she says “is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.”

This is not to ignore the fact that in other places and at other times, writers have explored the theme of love, its joys and its sadness. But let us not forget that literary forms are inventions that partake of their cultures. Many story traditions in Asia are still indifferent to the idea of a “protagonist” and the changes he or she undergoes. Rather, stories are about the unfolding of circumstances.

There are many other cultural variations in story-telling. For example, while the normal Western story is composed of three parts (beginning, middle or climax, end or resolution) some Asian cultures have a four-part form, known as Kishōtenketsu in Japanese. The structure here is beginning, middle, twist, end. All of this specificity and cultural detail is irrelevant to Fletcher’s project. And, the acid test is whether, as a writer, it equips me to write better stories or, as a reader, to gain more enjoyment. The answer to both is no

156. Stories and the discovery of the individual hero

Stories are about individuals, the challenges they face, and how they cope. There’s a protagonist (which come from the Greek for first struggler) and an antagonist (which means opposing struggler). Right?

Wrong. Or, at least, it’s right for contemporary Western literature, but not true of all places and all times. It wasn’t always so in the West either. Different cultures use very different ideas of the individual.

That idea seems so natural to us that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But, in fact, we invented the individual only quite recently.

What Guatemalan refugees can teach us about the self

As a way of explaining this odd suggestion, let me tell you a true story. I used to be involved with aid projects in Latin America. One of the projects we supported was psychotherapy for indigenous women fleeing the civil war in Guatemala. The therapists, who were from North America, would say to the women “tell me about yourself.” The women would describe their villages, and where the maize fields were, and their community, and so on. And the therapist would say, “Yes, but tell me about you.” And the women would look puzzled and say “But I just did.”

The therapists and the refugee women had different understandings of what a self was. Obviously, if we can have different understandings view of the self, there will be correspondingly different forms of story-making.

Is Antigone a heroine?

Let’s take, for example, the ancient Greek story of Antigone, famously dramatized by Sophocles. The events of the play follow an unsuccessful invasion of Thebes by Polynices to oust his brother from the throne. Both brothers are killed in the battle. Their uncle, Creon, ascends the throne, and decrees that no burial rites should be performed for Polynices. Antigone, sibling to the brothers, defies the order, arguing that the religious duty to honour the dead overrides human law. Creon orders her buried alive.

What does this story mean? It depends on whether you are an ancient Greek. Berthold Brecht staged a performance in 1948, when the crimes of the Second World War were still raw in memory. He set it in a Berlin air raid shelter. Brecht’s Antigone is a heroine, standing up to the cruelty and tyranny of Creon.

But this is not how Sophocles understood her, as Kenan Malik argues. Though Antigone is championing religious duty, Creon defends the safety of the people. Antigone is guilty of what the Greeks knew as hubris, overweening pride that sets the individual above the law. Her unswerving confidence that she is right causes her to go too far. For Sophocles, this was her tragedy. For the Greeks, heroes embody the best values of the community. They do not stand against the community.

The Greeks were more like the Guatemalan refugees in this than like the therapists. In the more communitarian cultures of Asia, stories today still often focus less on changes in the protagonist than on the unfolding of events.

The change in thinking in the West was quite recent. Malik argues that, until the sixteenth century, most Europeans would have readily understood Sophocles’ original intention. The individual had no meaning, except as a member of a community. It is a person’s actions rather than their thoughts or intentions, which are important.

The proper end of love is death

According to a fascinating essay by Laura Ashe, modern Western fiction could only come into being when it became culturally meaningful and interesting to wonder what was going on in someone else’s head. She argues that it was the development of the troubadours’ tales of courtly love that spearheaded this change in the twelfth century.

Though love has always been a feature of stories throughout ages and cultures, the idea of romantic love, which sprang from the troubadour tradition, is distinctly different. Before this, in great love tales such as Tristan and Isolde, love was a devastating destructive force.. There is no room for the modern idea of the protagonist who has a desire and struggles to achieve it. So a “happy ever after” ending is not available. Love is independent of the wills of the lovers, is incompatible with everyday life, and its proper end is death. Even in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet embodies this older understanding of love.

It took the historical uproar of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of mercantile and industrial capitalism to create a world in which modern Western fiction, particularly the novel, could exist. A world which created the ideas that individuals matter, and that they can have agency outside of fate and social station.

Why does any of this matter?

This little romp through a couple of thousand years of Western history tells us how important culture is. What we can imagine depends on the resources our culture gives us. People in Sophocles’ day were probably much the same as they are now. There simply hasn’t been enough time for evolution to have made us biologically different to the ancient Greeks. And people in London or Los Angeles have pretty much the same dreams as people in Lagos or Lima. But all of us live in worlds shaped by the societies we live in. The ancient Greeks lived in a world shaped by fate. The power today of possessive individualism is probably more marked in Los Angeles than in Lima. As they say in Southern Africa, “Motho ke motho ka batho” (people become people through other people).

We can, perhaps, investigate through different stories different ways of being people.

154. Truth, Lies, and Stories

We’ve all heard about stories within stories. But how about stories without (in the sense of outside) stories? I was prompted to consider this when I looked through the reviews of my novel, The Tears of Boabdil. On the surface, this is a story of an undercover cop, Vince, attempting to penetrate a suspected jihadi cell, and manipulating a target into a sexual relationship. It works as a thriller and as an (abusive) romance. And I wrote it so that it could be read that way. What struck me was that the majority of my reviewers gave it this reading.

There is also another possible reading: namely, that the thriller is simply a container for an exploration of what we mean by truth and lies.

The novel suggests that everything Vince believes he knows, including himself, is a  story. The cop lives-out a cover-story. As his sanity fractures, the rules of his story world begin to permeate his real world. And that was what I was what really interested me in writing it. There are many clues and motifs that lead the reader to this question. But the narrative about truth, lies and stories isn’t told directly—it’s a conclusion the reader has to assemble in their own minds. I believe that reading is an active process involving both the reader and the writer, rather than the passive consumption of a story.

Beyond these two layers of the narrative, there are probably others, partially hidden to me, at least when I was writing it.

There’s a moral conclusion. Vince pays a price, a terrible price, for his deception. And his lover’s/victim’s life is devastated. No work of fiction can escape this moral (or ideological, if you will) dimension. Every story is built on a framework of beliefs about right and wrong. In comedy, the story is driven by characters mistaking each other’s intentions. In tragedy, characters struggle unsuccessfully against wickedness or with flaws in their own nature.

Perhaps there’s another layer, too. In rendering Vince’s mental collapse, I drew on mythology. He is increasingly beset by figures who represent his mother and his father.

The mother manifests as Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess, and the father as Malachi, who shares much in common with the ancient hero, Gilgamesh. These may not be simply decorative flourishes added by the author. I may be telling myself something about myself. I say this because I have again turned to mythology to render a major character in the novel I’m working on now. Mythological reference is powerful, not least because it imports through recognizable characters a cargo of other narratives. Perhaps I am drawn to the liminal deities of mythology because they allow me to say something about transgression across the borders between good and evil. Perhaps, I am exploring the idea that goodness is not quite as good as we like to believe, and evil not quite as evil. It is probably no accident that the other mythological character in The Tears of Boabdil is a trickster figure that often manifests as a crow. The lover/victim at one point says “Goodness is a solid whereas evil is a liquid. You need a little evil in you to weather the edges off the goodness, otherwise it cuts the heart.”

So, yes, stories carry fragments of other stories, other meanings, that invite the reader to put the pieces together in new patterns.

152. Knowing what and how to write

This is an open response to Sue Hampton’s blog post “For the First Time in 15 Years I Don’t Know What or How to Write. She explores the dilemma of how to write truthfully and meaningfully in this era of climate catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter movement

Sue, your blog post moved me profoundly. That made me think, and think about my own writing. I would have posted this reply on your blog, but I couldn’t find a comment function.

Your analysis was fearless. I think you share your dilemma with Mao Tse Tung. He wrote poetry, as well as being the father of modern communist China. To his chagrin, he wrote what he considered bourgeois poetry. Like you, he wanted his writing to serve his cause. You write “This is a context so overwhelming that to write as if the crisis isn’t happening, like the billionaire press, seems to me immoral.” Mao finally decided that he was a man formed in the old China and that he could write in no other way. The next generation, he thought, would write the poetry of the new China.

Great moments of history don’t necessarily lead to great works of literature because we are in the middle of them. A considered understanding of what they mean may have to belong to the next generation. If you’re in the middle of a great war, all you can see is the “Naming of the Parts”.

As our ancestors emerged from the First World War, the so-called “Spanish Flu” killed millions more than the guns and the mud of the trenches. And yet, we had forgotten all about that last global pandemic until we faced our own, a hundred years later. My grandparents who had been through those times never once mentioned the Great Flu, though they talked a lot about the Great War.  

Perhaps the lesson is we are always passing through great moments of history, though we don’t necessarily see this. The nineteenth century, for example, was extraordinarily turbulent with the social devastation of the industrial revolution, the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for labour rights, for women’s enfranchisement. Some, but not all, of that colours the work of writers like Dickens. And before that, upheaval stretches back through wars, revolutions, pandemics. Shakespeare, for example, wrote merrily through the Black Death.

If we look through that lens, Shakespeare’s pandemic is present throughout his writing  (“a plague on both your houses”) though none of it is explicitly about the plague.

Coming back to our times, we can’t help being rooted in the past that formed us, like Mao, even as our feet us march forward into the future. But we can never be the children of that future. We can’t write about that future, because we haven’t seen it.  Of course, writers do imagine the future. But the future each age imagines always looks remarkably like its present. The future imagined in the science fiction I grew up was really the Cold War of a present dominated by the threat of nuclear annihilation and the ideological contention of two great blocs.

We can’t even write fully about the present, because we don’t fully understand it. Only when it becomes the past, and historians have picked over its bones, will writers have the tools and the distance to grapple with it.

But everything we write is suffused by the liquor of the present and the future it threatens or promises. Whatever we write about, even pulp romance, will steam with what is cooking underneath. I think of it a bit like Leibnitz’s monads, or like a hologram, in which the shadow of the whole is present in every part of a thing.

I fear writing activist literature. This is not because I think “art” is a higher truth. I believe every work of fiction is inescapably political, each with its unstated and unacknowledged moral calculus about who should be praised and who should be blamed. I fear writing activist literature because of the likelihood that it will be bad literature and, also therefore, bad activism.

But I do recognize that everything I write is suffused with the ideas of right and wrong, relevance and irrelevance, that have been shaped by my society, my upbringing and my activism. In writing my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, I grappled with some of the issues you mention in your post.

All the characters, bar two,  are of British Asian Muslim heritage. This is not my heritage, and so writing these characters caused me some effort and considerable research. The novel deals with issues of truth and lies, of necessity and abuse, of goodness and wickedness. It’s not intended to be a comfortable or comforting read, but to raise questions about freedom and security. I’m sure it’s shaped by being a man, being white, being non-Muslim, and by being born into an era whose fears and hopes were rather different from today.  But it is nonetheless, I think, a book suffused with today’s issues without necessarily being about them.

The novel I’m working on is, in some ways, informed by the ecological crisis without (probably) ever being about it. It’s about boundaries and about our illusion that we can create zones within which we’re “safe”. Perhaps, I hope, the readers will come away with a changed understanding of today’s lexicon of “safety” and “tipping points”.

I’m so glad you’ve found a route through your maze, though of course the bull always lurks at the centre. My message, and perhaps yours, is that it’s possible to write in the midst of great events because we are probably always in the midst of great event. Whether we write about them explicitly or not, they will poke their heads up, distorting the net of our words into recognisable shapes.