My colleague Johann Hari, of whom I think the world, has a brilliant piece in the Indy today about why novelists need to get real. The trouble is, he thinks this means that we have to go abroad, or at least to a different part of the UK that might not be our normal stamping ground. Excuse me, Johann: reality begins at home. There’s enough hair-raising stuff on the streets of south London to feed a thousand novelists if they have their eyes open.
Complaining that British novelists are too middle-class or whatever is faintly ironic because most people who read their books are middle-class themselves – but it’s another huge middle-class assumption to say that everyday life in Britain is somehow not ‘real’ and we are not experiencing ‘real’ life unless we go to Africa/India/China. I don’t think so…
Try a cancer ward in any British hospital. Try drug-dealing and benefit cheating in any suburb of your choice. Try the crazy divisions in our society where you can see an oligarch swanning in a limo out of a £24m mansion at one moment, then take the tube for twenty minutes and find children dying in a fire in a crumbling council block that’s been denied the upkeep it needed while committees in-fought and bankers stole money. This is pretty damn real. This needs action, and the words to inspire it. Perhaps we don’t lack reality, but only the eyes to see it.
Of course, that’s what journalists are for. Good journalism doesn’t always make good fiction – what a great novel adds is character, plot and inspiration. A big sweeping creation about a whole country, like The White Tiger, is possibly the best possible example of how to do that. But plot, character, inspiration and social insight can apply perfectly well to reality everywhere. Nobody appreciates being told that their painful and horrible experiences are not ‘real’ just because they happen to live in Epsom or wherever: you can still face the loss of a loved one from a sudden heart attack, the imminent birth of a potentially handicapped child, the loss of your job, the discovery of a long-lost half-sibling…they still shake your world and tell the rest of us something about the malfunctioning of our society if written about well enough. And it’s often even littler things, the pieces of ivory (as Jane Austen knew) that give away the great gulfs in the world we’ve created.
Why should it not be ‘real’ to explore the effects of what many middle-class parents are doing, with the best of intentions, to screw up their kids for life? Witness a snippet overheard in a Cambridge college: “I’ve got to get a First and become a lawyer because my parents will love me more if I do.” What does that tell us about the sickness of our own country? And in a world where the suffragettes chained themselves to the railings for the right to vote and miners went on strike for ages to assert their rights to a livelihood, today people won’t vote and don’t join unions merely because they “can’t be arsed”? Like Beckett’s DiDi and GoGo, they’re getting rid of their rights, without noticing. Doesn’t that need attention?
If there’s a deficiency in our fiction world, those favourite people of all writers, publishers, are complicit. Feeding an endless diet of chicklit-nuggets to a generation of young women hasn’t opened many eyes to what relationships are really about, let alone why they shouldn’t aspire to more in life than a fluffy white wedding. And they are frightened of frightening their readers, who apparently have quite an appetite for escapism. One overseas publisher, agreeing to a translation of Songs, told me they’d have to ‘tone down the bit about Bosnia’. But how exactly do you ‘tone down’ an experience like the Bosnian war? I went to Mostar; I saw the lasting effects of it; I met people who went through it. You can’t tone them down. You just can’t.
The short version of all this is: I agree with Johann, but I do believe reality is everywhere and it requires us to give up our cultural anaesthetics, get out our x-ray machines and notice it fully, even if it’s in our own front rooms. Nothing does reality better than open-eyed fiction.