Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Destruction | Fiction | Writing in the Eye of the Storm

A quote for today’s article? Let’s go with a rather enchanting exchange from that bewildering post-Hurricane Katrina piece/‘remake’ The Bad Lieutenant;

Terence McDonaugh: Shoot him again.

Midget: (Uncomprehending) What for?

Terence McDonaugh: His soul’s still dancing. (Laughs, madly.)


Phil’s talked mainly about personal disaster, and the conceit that writers are supposed to thrive off it, so I’m not going to touch on that too strongly, although I can recommend, as an aside, Sam Leith’s recent article in the Guardian on a closely related subject, and the little debate it’s engendered. The real question, or at least the question I’m going to steal from it, is this; if a ‘great writer’ does have to make a black-and-white choice between their art and their happiness, which should they choose? (And, as a side-note, for any kind of artist, can a disaster be a boon, giving weight and emotion to their craft, and a happy event – such as E.M. Forster’s sexual awakening – destructive?)  For me it's not a question of 'should' so much as 'would'- as Mr Leith points out, no person in their right mind would sacrifice personal happiness for art, but how many writers are really in their right mind?  How many of us are really so un-egotistical, so down-to-earth and normal that we know, for certain, if we were forced, gun-to-the-head, to make that choice, that we'd pick happiness?  And, as importantly, wouldn't some of literature's most famous 'miserabilists' have been rather, well, miserable if they were granted personal happiness?  Curmudgeonliness, in my opinion, is far more fun.

Judging by a lot of the comments, however, some literary-ish people have decided that the defining statement was in fact, ‘art and happiness are always incompatible’ or even ‘writers should stop moping around being miserable. Idiots.’ and responded accordingly. Which is sad, I think, but there you are. Maybe they should just stop moping around being miserable. Idiots.


Instead, I’d like to think a little about national and international disasters, the kind that cause not simply destruction of property and loss of life, but also widespread cultural devastation- and the author’s right/duty/psychological need/appalling bloody cheek when it comes to dealing with them. Any half-decent writer knows (or ought to know- there is, admittedly, a pretty big gap there) that cynical exploitation of a world catastrophe is wrong. And yet it sells, and under the right circumstances it can be acclaimed for ‘dealing’ with the issue.  The key's in that word.  If a writer's 'dealt' with a catastrophe successfully, it becomes more understandable - and, by proxy, easier to bracket and easier to forget - for all of us.  Though this is, obviously, not a given- see the critical reception given to Yann Martel’s latest Holocaust novel, Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December, Martin Amis’ 9/11 non-fiction...

But, less cynically, (and I would like to argue that Faulks and Amis at least, were feeling this particular misguided urge) there’s also a widespread belief that the author is obliged to comment on the events of the day, especially when it involves some sort of collective pain that needs resolving. For every journalist’s article asking why so much of our art is now obsessed with the coming Apocalypse, there’ll most likely be another complaining that too many writers are focused on period stuff instead of on modern issues- like, for example, the potential collapse of civilisation as we know it. The author is supposed to engage with the problems of their time.

And there’s a logic to that, of course, particularly in longer fiction, which in some way, directly or indirectly, consciously or otherwise, is nearly always going to end up dealing with society. But the writer should never feel obliged to do so, especially if, like Faulks, they were a great deal better when they were writing about past wars than trying to echo the tragedy of 7/7. Writing is all kinds of things; and sometimes apparently trivial stuff can be a great deal better than well-intentioned prose on a subject beyond the author’s power to deal with. The greatest ‘disaster’ prose will almost always be that of a writer who’s lived through the disaster themselves, and has been forced by their own psyche, rather than by media expectations, into getting it out onto the page. No matter how well-researched a second-hand disaster piece is, it’s most likely never going to have the same weight of lived humanity as, say, Slaughterhouse Five or If This Is A Man.

(Above: the writer.  Presumably it's the bloke, as he's training the camera on himself.)

However (and yes, I am turning like the proverbial worm, but it’s a winding sort of argument) your typical writer is the equivalent of the characters in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, notepad on their knees, scribbling as the tidal wave crashes towards them. And that’s excellent, because that reaction will send us, who live through disasters without experiencing them first-hand, into writing about the atmosphere around them, caused by that disaster. And, of course, if we happen to experience an earth-shattering catastrophe ourselves, that’s all to the good. I don’t suppose anybody else fancies going to sit on the San Andreas Fault for a month or two...?

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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