Monday, 9 February 2015

Embarrassed by fiction?

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

An American novelist writes to tell me he’s read one of my books. There are things in it he admires, such as ‘the evocation of atmosphere’ and ‘the urgency of suspicions of adultery’. But the plot bothers him – the fact that there is one. ‘Plot always bugs me,’ he says, ‘and I couldn’t help thinking – if you’ll forgive me – that almost all novels would benefit if they (we) could break loose of the imperative of A leading to B leading to C, etc.’

A friend, writing from Japan, is less apologetic. He has already told me, to his own great amusement, having read only the publisher’s blurbs, that my books are ‘silly’. A social historian who has lived on four continents, he just can’t see the point of made-up stories when there’s so much real life to learn about. He writes, ‘I’m reading about Karl Ove Knausgaard and he says the same kinds of things about fiction as me. I’m not as mad as I’d thought!’

Knausgaard’s unflinching memoir has won him notoriety far beyond his native Norway and has given new impetus to an old critical trope: the death of the novel. ‘Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,’ he writes in the second of six fat volumes of the bizarrely titled Min Kampf. The British novelist Rachel Cusk is also reported to have given up on fiction, finding it, according to a profile in a recent New Yorker, ‘fake and embarrassing’, and the creation of plot and character ‘utterly ridiculous’.

As I wrestle with the familiar challenge of bringing fictional characters to life and giving shape to their experiences, I begin to feel disheartened. Perhaps I should just write about my life. But I have no appetite for self-revelation. On an impulse I download Cusk’s latest book, Outline.

Some books I buy in the expectation of pleasure, others for work. This one I encounter as an enemy. If Cusk considers ridiculous what I put so much energy into, it follows that I will either hate what she’s doing or be defeated by it, recognising that my craft has indeed been superseded.

But the headlines have misled me. Outline is no memoir. The first person narrator, of whose life we gather only fragments, is mainly a recipient of other people’s stories, which are delivered with arresting eloquence. I’m reminded of the strange fictions of Borges, or of a Chekhovian play in which characters take it in turns to reveal something of themselves. Many of these narratives lead to moments of illumination. The effect is elaborately fictive.

It occurs to me that I have mistaken Cusk’s self-reflective musings for literary analysis. Her embarrassment is, of course, purely personal. Pushing herself to solve problems thrown up by her earlier works, she is acutely aware of what she perceives, justly or not, to be their shortcomings. This is a feeling I understand. I finish Outline exhilarated and ready to get back to my novel. 

Silk purse or sow's ear?

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

“The writing is overstuffed and leaks sawdust.” So writes Michael Hofmann of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books. The novel’s many admirers, like the tourists recently observed by Hofman throwing themselves out of the path of a monumental granite ball that turned out to be fake, have been “hoaxed by polystyrene”.

Hofman is not the only dissenter. In the TLS, Craig Raine described the novel as “saturated, not always judiciously, in poetry,” poetry, for Flanagan, meaning “exaggerated imagery, an uncertain, elevated tone, and generous rights on repetition”.

This is the same book that was praised by Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph for its “grace and unfathomability” and whose war scenes were described by Leyla Sanai in the Guardian as “devastating”.

The Man Booker judges sided with the novel’s admirers and gave Flanagan the prize. They took a different view of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. With the competition open for the first time to American authors, expectations were high for Tartt’s third novel, which had already won her a Pulitzer, and when the judges announced their longlist in July, its absence was, for some reporters, the big story.  

Early reviews had been mainly positive, some verging on the ecstatic. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it a “glorious Dickensian novel… that pulls all [Tartt’s] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole”. Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian that to say too much about the events “would be to deprive a reader of the great joy of being swept up by the plot.” The Telegraph’s Catherine Taylor found the grief of the young hero for his mother “so tangible the pages appear tear-sodden”. 

But there was a growing band of sceptics. In the Guardian, Julie Myerson described it as a “mystifying mess”, wondering why a writer of Tartt’s talent was wasting her time on this over-long and slackly written “Harry Potter homage”. In the New Yorker, James Wood agreed that “its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature”.  

What are we to make of these starkly diverging opinions? Is there something about these books in particular that scrambles reader’s critical faculties, inciting them to hyperbolic gushing or sneering put-downs? Or are they just the extreme cases, reminding us that all literary opinions are utterly subjective and any attempt to judge artistic merit is futile? Should we perhaps question the motives of the writers, suspecting the favourable reviewers of sycophancy, the detractors of envy?

I resist all these conclusions. As a novelist I find I’m attached to the notion that there are worse ways of writing and better ways, even if only in some Platonic sense. Why else is it so hard to get it right? And it’s good that people care enough to argue fiercely about what those ways are. I find their arguments, and my responses to them, sharpen my own sense of what fiction is for and inform the choices I make in my work. 

Diversity on the page, on the screen, in the studio

I've been neglecting my blog recently, mainly because I've been pushing forward with my novel-in-progress. It certainly isn't for lack of blogworthy material. What about the government's plan to make creative writing courses redundant by requiring all 11-year-olds to be able to write "a coherent short story"? I should take that class! Meanwhile I've been keeping up my monthly supply of pieces to the Bangladesh Daily Star, but failing to republish them here. This is November's piece, so there are a couple more to follow.

A headline in the London Evening Standard caught my eye recently: “BBC in race row.” The Corporation has been getting a lot of bad press and I feared another damaging scandal. But as I read on, this one began to look like a storm in a teacup. The BBC was under attack “for casting a white actor in a role originally written as black for a new thriller.” It seems the author of the new 5-part series London Spy, best-selling novelist Tom Rob Smith, was still writing the script and the identity of the lead character was fluid when casting began. The black actors who auditioned all lost out.

I can’t help feeling sympathy for Smith, whose mind was probably on art rather than demographics, but I sympathise with the rejected actors too. In the novel I’m currently struggling with, a character I had thought was West Indian turns out to be Kurdish. Another I had conceived as a native Londoner has become a Hungarian immigrant. The cultural impact of these changes, outside my own head, is precisely zero. But perhaps the writer of a high-profile TV drama has a wider responsibility. There are two distinct issues here: how will the diversity of modern Britain be reflected on our TV screens? and what work opportunities will be offered to black, Asian and ethnic minority actors?

There’s no doubt that white actors are over-represented in British TV drama. If you’re inclined to blame the writers, you should probably start with Jane Austen and then move on to Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope. You might also blame a viewing public that seems to have a bottomless appetite for classic adaptations, lapping up weak substitutes such as Downton Abbey when the real thing isn’t available. This includes viewers in America, where this kind of programme finds a lucrative market. The focus on the picturesque past keeps the British acting establishment busy dressing up in corsets and frockcoats but leaves thin pickings for minority actors.

Commissioning editors must also take responsibility. The success of Luther, a crime drama that ran for three seasons between 2010 and 2013, and for which the star Idris Elba won a Golden Globe, demonstrated that viewers are ready for compelling stories about non-white characters. But we can only choose from what’s offered. Speaking in June at the launch of Act for Change, a project designed to address the lack of diversity on British television, actor and writer Meera Syal made an eloquent plea for a fresh approach to a problem that people have been talking about, she said, for 30 years. So Tom Rob Smith’s artistic choices take place in a broader context.

In some ways it’s a relief to know that the changes I make to my own story won’t affect anyone else’s career. Meanwhile diversity is working for me. The south Asian character I’ve just introduced looks set to have a significant impact, unless the plot takes an unexpected turn – or I decide to make her Norwegian. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Cops and their feelings

When I heard on BBC radio 4 news that a 12-year-old boy had been shot dead by police in Cleveland Ohio, I asked myself, Was he black or white? The report didn’t include this information, though it did give his name, Tamir Rice, which suggested an answer. I got online and saw a picture. A black boy, of course. White boys in America don’t get shot by the police so often.

The shooting had been caught on security camera – an image too blurred and distant for a non-expert to learn much from it, except the speed of the action. For a while you watch the boy wandering in the park, playing with his toy gun, throwing snowballs at no one. The police car pulls up and the boy falls to the ground. It seems it took about as long to happen as it takes to read that last sentence.

Then there was the recording of the 911 call – an elderly man phoning to let the police know that there was someone in the park waving a gun around. I heard the dispatcher ask six questions. First “Where are you at, sir?” Then “What does he look like?” Questions 3, 4 and 5 are “Is he black or white?” And finally “Do you know the guy?” The black or white question is repeated because the caller doesn’t get it the first two times. This would be funny if it weren’t so entirely unfunny.

What does he look like?
He has a camouflage hat on?
Is he black or white?
He has a grey coat with black sleeves and grey pants on.
Is he black or white?
I’m sorry.
Is he black or white?
He’s black.

Now I look at it again I see that the black or white question is asked not 3 but 4 times. It’s what the question “What does he look like?” means. The caller doesn’t get that one either.

I asked the same bland, incurious question too, of course, though only after Tamir Rice had been killed. I’m glad the BBC didn’t choose to make this the story. Why should the third thing we’re told about this boy, after his age and his name, be the colour of his skin? On the other hand the event demands that question, because, according to analysis of US government data by the news organisation ProPublica, young black males in America are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white males.

I assumed at first that the dispatcher was asking so the police would know who they were looking for. But as a way of identifying an individual this simple binary distinction hardly seems adequate – the answer is far less specific than the information the caller is offering. More likely the question emerges from an institutional culture that knows the statistics – not cognitively, but as a gut-feeling that young black males are going to need shooting about 20 times more often than young white males, even those who are unarmed, or are looking at a BB gun on sale in Walmart, or are 12 years old and playing alone in a park.

Last week we heard a lot about how one particular cop felt before shooting dead an unarmed suspect. For Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson it was apparently all about fear – which was just as well for him because if it had been about rage he might not have got such a sympathetic hearing. Grappling with 6’4” Michael Brown, 6’ 4” Wilson “felt like a 5-year-old child holding on to Hulk Hogan”. The police officer who called in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice put Tamir’s age at about 20. The power that this officer and his partner attributed in their imaginations to a powerless child will no doubt feature in their defence. 

We’d expect a surgeon who lost too many patients on the operating table to be judged on procedures and outcomes, not on how he or she felt. For police officers it seems feelings are what matter. Which is a problem, because whatever the feeling that leads someone to kill – fear, rage or a sense of impunity – the figures suggest that on average a US police officer is 21 times more likely to feel it when the suspect happens to be black.   

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

What's in a name? Ask Loretta Lynch

During the American War of Independence (or Revolutionary War) a Virginia planter and magistrate called Charles Lynch, the son of a poor Irish immigrant, was in the habit of locking up supporters of the British without trial. His friends in Congress protected him from prosecution after the fact by legalising these questionable activities. This is the likely origin of the US term Lynch Law for any kind of pseudo-judicial punishment and, by extension, the word lynching for a mob execution by hanging.

After the Civil War and Emancipation, lynching became mainly associated with the murder of black men by gangs of white men (though victims were not exclusively black and a small but significant minority were female). According to research at the University of Missouri, nearly 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968. The circumstances varied, but the overarching purpose was to maintain white control in the southern states by intimidating African Americans into accepting their servile status. Black people were discouraged by whatever means necessary from voting, acquiring education, or challenging white authority.

Civil Rights legislation changed all that – up to a point. Young African American men are still disproportionately stopped and searched, pulled over, harassed, charged, convicted and locked up. Extra-judicial executions now take the form of shootings of unarmed black men and teenage boys by police officers or by vigilantes encouraged by a new wave of 'stand your ground' laws.

The Supreme Court has recently opened the door to discriminatory voting legislation in individual states, designed to make it harder for certain sections of the population to vote, particularly those without settled addresses or the time to wait in long lines at inconveniently placed polling stations during the working week. Along with the overlapping categories of students, poor people, and the footloose renter class, minority populations are disproportionately affected.

Eric Holder, Attorney General for the past six years, has been outspoken on these issues. Now that Holder has decided to step down, Obama has nominated Loretta Lynch, who is currently the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. If appointed she will be the second African American, the second woman, and the first African American woman to hold the post.

The child of a Baptist minister and a school librarian, Lynch was born, as it happens, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a town significant in the history of the Civil Rights movement for the 1960 sit-in by black students at Woolworth’s lunch counter in defiance of the whites-only policy. Lynch is unquestionably qualified to be Attorney General, though the smear campaign against her, by people who would object to anyone chosen by Obama, has already begun.

The name Lynch derives from the Gaelic word meaning ‘longship’ or ‘mariner’. I don’t know where Loretta Lynch got it from, but I’m willing to guess that her ancestors acquired it unwillingly from a plantation owner of Irish heritage. I hope she's appointed. It would be heartening to think that she might do something to rehabilitate this ancient Irish name in the context of American racial politics. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

How to choose a winner

A version of this piece has appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star

In a previous post I commented on the relatively narrow range, in geographic terms, of the Man Booker long list. Reading the shortlist I’m struck by its artistic diversity. If you were a judge, how would you choose a winner from among such different books? Here are some possible strategies.

Go for an epic. Richard Flanagan and Neel Mukherjee both illuminate historic events with intimate human drama. In Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo Evans, who has risen from poverty to become a distinguished surgeon, is invaded by memories of a life shaped by war and his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese working on the infamous ‘Death Railway’. Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others concerns a household in 1960s West Bengal caught up in violent social change. The three generations of the Ghosh family are brilliantly brought to life, with their squabbles and rivalries, struggling to coexist in the four-storey family home while endangered by external events beyond their control.  

Look for innovation. If you’re drawn to novels that extend the possibilities of the form, there are a couple to choose from. Howard Jacobson’s J drops us into a future, in which the unspeakable event that has changed everything comes slowly into focus through a collage of narratives. Ali Smith offers two stories that can be read in either order, one set in renaissance Italy, one in present day England. There’s a luminous sense of place and the dialogue sings. Always fresh and playful, in How to be Both Smith brings a light touch to big questions of art and mortality.

Demand the truth. The two American books contrast interestingly here. In Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the New York dentist-narrator, complaining in a characteristic moment how hard it is to get a table in a Manhattan restaurant, tells us that his girlfriend Connie “once told a reservationist that she was dying of stomach cancer and had chosen that restaurant as her last meal out”. A sentence like that has no purpose except to make me laugh. And if it fails at that, it fails altogether, because I don’t believe it. Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves has her own kind of wisecracking style. “My father,” she tells us, was “a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.” That’s funny. But it doesn’t live or die on its ability to amuse.

Choose an author who gets out of the way of the story. Jacobson is never dull, often brilliant and constantly challenging, but too certain of what he thinks and too determined that we should think the same. Flanagan’s grasp is perhaps less consistent, but his reach is huge and the best of his storytelling feels as natural as breathing. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A no to independence is also a kind of yes

I’m traveling in California so it’s on National Public Radio’s financial program Marketplace that I first catch wind of the swing towards Scottish independence. Marketplace covers it as a currency story: the British pound takes a dive in the wake of new polling news.

There are pragmatic concerns here that I suppose might interest me. But my first response is an emotional one. I’m not ready for Scottish independence. A Santa Barbara friend, with no ancestral connections to the British Isles, tells me she’s all for it. She’s rooting for the Scots and is delighted to see them standing up to the Brits, the bankers and big business. What’s my problem? I’ve got Irish roots, haven’t I? Why aren’t I cheering on my fellow Celts?

Well maybe that’s one reason why. I was born in England with an English father but never quite think of myself as English. My mother was Irish and my upbringing – our upbringing, I have to say since there were nine of us – had a distinctly Irish flavour. I spent twenty years of my adult life in Wales. My brother Wilfrid worked as a GP in Edinburgh for twenty years, where I visited him regularly, and in Shetland for a couple more. I have an instinctive preference for joining these pieces together than for splitting them apart. The same impulse will contribute to my vote against leaving the EU when it comes to that.

And I’m acutely aware, by the way, that Scotland's departure would increase the proportion of anti-Europeans among the rest of us.   

When my American wife Leni and I were in Inverness recently we asked people what they thought about independence and got some interesting answers:

It’ll force us to grow up and stop blaming everything on the English.... For me, it's like wanting to be your own boss instead of working for someone else.... Who hates the Scottish? No one. Who hates the English? Everyone.

They were the pros. The antis just came straight out with it:

It’d be madness.... Complete lunacy.

Incidentally, our tiny sample revealed an even bigger gender gap than the opinion polls do. All our yeses were men, all our nos were women. Listening to our no-voters I had the distinct impression that some heads would be knocked together if it was up to them.

The nice lady at the Culloden visitor centre was way too canny to express an opinion. Given that this is a place of bitter memories – the site of the final defeat of the Jacobites, leading to the brutal destruction of the highland way of life by the ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland – and a place of pilgrimage for Americans seeking their Scottish roots, I admired her tact and was inclined to put her down as a no, though I would have had to count her as undecided if I’d been conducting a poll.

Considering the length of the campaign, the number of undecideds has apparently remained stubbornly high. For some, like the lady at Culloden, don’t know might translate as not telling. For others perhaps it reflects that heart-versus-head thing commentators have been talking about – indulging a wild yes impulse for as long as possible, maybe, before settling down to the practicalities of no.

There I go with the kind of patronising assumption guaranteed to irritate a nationalist. What would be wild or impulsive about voting for independence?  More important, it concedes too much in handing over all sense of imaginative possibility to the yes-voters, just as the Better Together campaign has done in emphasising fear – fear of change, fear of uncertainty – over hope.  

The yes campaign has not made the mistake of dwelling on the past – ancient grudges have not featured. But it’s hard to ignore the more recent grudge that must fuel the urge to go it alone – the feeling that since the 80s the British political establishment has engaged in a process of neo-liberal economic restructuring that Scotland never signed up to. Half the population of Britain south of the border could raise their hands and say we never signed up to it either. Understandably, Scottish nationalists don’t see this as Scotland’s problem. And I can certainly see the appeal to disaffected Scots of wiping the smug smile off Cameron’s face and giving him a bloody nose on their way out the door. 

Paradoxically the very features that have enabled the Scots to protect themselves from some of the ravages of this right-wing project, including the creeping privatisation of the NHS – Scotland’s historic identity as a country, its tradition of separate institutions, and its 15-year-old parliament – have provided the platform, unique in mainland Britain, for its departure. Other disgruntled regions and disregarded minorities don't have the same option.  

So my heart and my head are united on this issue. My heart says I don’t want Scotland to leave the family. My head says my political interests, and the interests of those I care about, will suffer if it does.

I strongly suspect that Wilfrid, who loved Scotland’s more rugged landscape, taught himself the bagpipes and took to wearing the kilt at family celebrations, would have voted yes. If something in Scotland claimed his soul, his political calculations also saw the benefits of living and working north of the border – years ago he told me, with a baleful shake of the head, that the NHS in England and Wales was finished.  

But I would have argued with him about how to vote. On the one hand, independence is no guarantee of a socialist future – a Scotland having to clamour on its own behalf for international investment might find itself settling for something less idealistic. It's possible that independence would result in a shift to the right on both sides of the border. On the other hand, walking out on the UK’s problems is, in its own way, a failure of imagination. Austerity will not serve as a permanent excuse to screw the poor and reduce taxes on the rich. We won’t be ruled by Cameron and Osborne forever. And we have more chance together than alone of ending their temporary ascendancy. 

Running deeper than the ebb and flow of politics, there are surely bonds of culture and history and shared interests that unite us across our geographic borders.