Is the novelist a dying breed?

Nov 04


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Helen Whitten

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Is the novelist a dying breed?

As many of you know, I have spent the Covid lockdown writing a novel.  This is a new venture for me.  I have written seven previous books, six of them non-fiction, in the area of personal and professional development, plus my collection of poetry.  But writing a novel is a completely new experience.  When I write non-fiction, I have a reasonably clear idea of whether I am doing a decent job of conveying my subject but with fiction, until someone else reads it, I simply haven’t a clue if it is complete rubbish or something that will engage the reader.  It is a daunting project and a steep learning curve.

However, writing a novel in 2021 is even more daunting, as on top of the normal writer’s doubts, there sit the censorious voices of today’s cancel culture.  So, it becomes twice as unnerving, with a feeling that the Orwellian or Stalinist thought-police are watching over my shoulder, looking for offence, seeking to accuse me of saying something that might upset or hurt someone, distorting my meaning or intention. 

I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I bowed to these voices.  Surely the point of a novel is to move you, sometimes to upset you, even to the point of tears, horror, disgust and, yes, offence?  A novel can broaden your experience, take you to places you have never been in real life, place you in situations you hope you will never experience yourself.  Through this medium, an author can raise the reader’s level of empathy and help them understand what it might be like to experience something different, horrific, tragic or, equally, joyful.  And open doors of perception.

Dickens took his readers to places they might well have been grateful for not experiencing themselves but which raised their level of awareness for the poverty and hardship on Victorian streets.  Jane Austen experienced quite a narrow social life but her powers of sharp perception of the human condition raised her readers’ awareness of the machinations of society, the ambitions, bitchiness, unrequited dreams, jealousies and rivalries that they may not have noticed without her brilliant observation.  Solzhenitsyn took us to all the dark places of the Russian gulags.  And, among many others, was cancelled.

I, for one, don’t want to live in a country where I feel that writers could be silenced just because a minority of people – who may not even be forced to read a particular book – should choose to feel offended by what they read. 

Where is the reader’s sense of responsibility for their own response to a book, to what they read or hear?  For, as the Stoics would remind us, it is not the book or situation itself that is a problem necessarily but our own response to what we are reading or experiencing that gives it meaning.  The reader requires self-knowledge to become conscious of their own prejudices before accusing the writer of prejudice or bias.

The wonder of reading is to broaden the mind, to take one’s mind into different perspectives and consider the views of those who see or experience the world differently.  That is why this whole concept of ‘cultural misappropriation’ makes no sense whatsoever in the arena of fiction.  No author would ever be able to write anything other than a memoir, and then only from the first person, as they could be accused of speaking for others whose lives they may not understand.   But none of us fully understand another person.  This is what imagination and creative writing is all about.

Every author has to put themselves into other people’s shoes – if one is a female writer then we have to imagine male characters, people older than ourselves, people who come from other backgrounds, other countries, other eras, different sexual inclinations.  It all takes imagination and no one is claiming that it is perfectly factual.  It is a work of fiction, so one is needing to describe and imagine situations beyond one’s own experience.  But in today’s world in the UK, writers are being criticised for writing about characters from other cultures, or about gays when they aren’t gay, or ethnic groups when they don’t belong to that group.

If we follow this narrow argument, we shall never have any more fiction to read.  Nor thrillers, because surely those advocating for no ‘cultural appropriation’ could not expect every thriller writer to have experienced the horrific scenes they describe.  And what about science fiction, or fantasy?   It is ridiculous and it is a gross infringement of freedom of speech and creativity.

Which takes me back to my own novel and the concerns all this raises in me as I start to edit and finesse the book.  If J K Rowling’s agent and publisher can punish her for her views about women, then I don’t have a hope in hell of getting an agent or publisher if they choose to buy into the current cancel culture of bullying and fear that insists that words such as ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ are now unacceptable.  For if a publisher should read my blogs and tweets, they will see that I firmly believe such words should remain a part of the English language, both written and spoken, and they may not like that.  

Then my novel is set partly in Russia, between the 1990s-2006, so will I be accused of cultural misappropriation in describing Russian characters living through that period?  Inevitably I include male characters in the book.  Will I be accused of writing about people and situations of which I have no personal experience?    But what else do novelists do but write about people who inhabit their imagination?

I heard this week that John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and even Shakespeare, are now facing the cancellation lists for their misogynistic views but how does it help us to treat people of previous generations, who had very different perspectives and norms, as if they were writing today?  They were men of a certain age.  Expecting people of bygone days to have the same cultural perspectives as we have today, does nothing to celebrate how we learn through the ages, how we are all, in our way, far more ‘woke’ than people were even two decades ago.  Surely the whole progress of civilisation is to become more conscious of the subtle factors of life and humanity that were not realised before.  Within this progress we cannot possibly expect that people of earlier times should have had these perspectives.  It’s rather like condemning a 3-year-old for snatching a toy when we know that as we learn and develop that child will become more empathetic and aware that this is not an acceptable act.

I sincerely hope that we shall soon return to a place of common sense where people recognise the fact that it is absolutely necessary for us to be offended, insulted even, as we go through life.  It can give us self-knowledge, can enhance our humility and help us understand that we may well not be perfectly correct about our opinions because there are always others who have different opinions.  This could give us an insight we hadn’t noticed before.  And it can develop that entirely essential skill of resilience.

So, I shall pursue the completion of my novel over the next few months and shall endeavour to silence these unelected censors looking over my shoulder …. and my own inner doubting demons too, of course!


4 Responses

  1. I don’t think the novelist is a dying breed but I think the male novelist may be. The general view seems to be that novels should be written by women, for women and about women. My own effort ticked two boxes but my sex remains unalterably male!

    1. Yes, I heard this discussion this week too. It’s alarming. We need good male novelists too, obviously! For novels to be written for women, by women and about women is totally unbalanced. Keep writing, I enjoyed Echoes of a Life very much!

  2. Hi Helen
    It’s always interesting to try and analyse why we do the things we do, but don’t let the weight of it all discourage you. If you need to write and it feeds you and gives you enjoyment you should go for it. It’s hard though to do things just for your own amusement/fulfilment. The problem comes if you need a wider purpose: to get published or to follow a mission; convince other people of something important. With your non-fiction books you were on solid ground; with a novel less so perhaps. So take courage and go on with it and see where it takes you.
    Lots of best wishes . Susan

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