Ahdaf Soueif had a thought-provoking essay in the Guardian recently about fiction and activism in general, and the effect of the Egyptian revolution on Egyptian novelists in particular:
In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.
Fiction will come again, I hope …
Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. So it’s no use a story presenting itself, tempting, asking to be written, because another story will – in the next minute – come roaring over it, making the same demand. And you, the novelist, can’t grab one of them and run away and lock yourself up with it and surrender to it and wait and work for the transformation to happen – because you, the citizen, need to be present, there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.
It’s not that she thinks writing fiction is itself apolitical, or that it can’t be a form of activism: “A work of fiction lives by empathy – the extending of my self into another’s, the willingness to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. This itself is a political act: empathy is at the heart of much revolutionary action.” But Soueif doesn’t think great art can come from a sense of deliberate activism: “it may be a good cause and a just cause, but what you get will not be a novel – it will be a political tract with a veneer of fiction.” “Ah yes, Mary Barton,” says the sage Victorianist, nodding … and yet that doesn’t seem quite fair to Mary Barton, actually, which has more than a veneer of artistry even as it is an overt act of advocacy. Its art, we might say, is its advocacy.
Maybe the moment for such “novels with a purpose” has simply passed: today we want our fiction to intervene obliquely or ironically, rather than to confront us (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, anyone?) with demands, to raise questions rather than blandish prescriptions. Our tolerance for didacticism in art is very low. And yet maybe we underestimate the effects of that veneer of fiction, or overestimate the importance of aesthetic ineffables over social deliverables. Would anyone make a case for the artistry of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? I didn’t think so–but would we wish it unwritten? It played its part in the revolutions of its time. But then, if we had to choose between Mary Barton and another novel pretty much contemporary with it that had no immediate interest in “the problems of its day,” Wuthering Heights, which would be the greater loss?* We don’t blame Emily Brontë, surely, for not rushing off to Manchester to see what she could do about relations between master and men; we don’t suggest that she chose to “absent [herself] from the great narrative of the world.” But what difference did her book make, compared to Gaskell’s or Stowe’s? Do we care? Should we care? ‘Tis a muddle.
And so, like Soueif in her essay, we don’t take a stand one way or the other on whether the artist can or should, in general, “do one or the other.” But “at the time of crisis,” “if you cannot or will not remove yourself from the situation,” Soueif suggests, you lose the luxury of distance, the luxury of choice. At such a time, your responsibility “as a citizen of the world” is to turn your efforts and talents to things that are not made up. Thus, for the time being, she at least is no longer a novelist.
I found her reflections interesting not just because of the questions they raise about a novelist’s obligations, but because they reminded me of her comments last year about whether the revolution had rendered her (then) in-progress novel obsolete–and of my own dissatisfaction with doing literary criticism about her novels when world events made such a project seem pretty trivial. In the intervening time she has published one book of non-fiction, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. This was clearly, as I said in my review, “a book Soueif felt compelled to write”: this recent piece suggests that we will see more writing of this kind before we see another novel. A part of me is sorry, because I want to see what kind of fiction she writes next, but I accept that what she’s doing right now is much more important. I’m glad that she’s still invoking George Eliot, anyway.
*There’s the complicating factor that perhaps Mary Barton, which to be sure is a bit creaky around the plot points and shamelessly sentimental to boot, was important preparatory work for Gaskell’s later, better novels, but that just muddies up my attempt at a provocative comparison, so never mind that for now.
Thanks for this and for all the important questions and insights you raise around Soueif’s comments. She has a way of saying things that click for me, bring sense to ideas that have been floating around but that I hadn’t yet come to understand. I remember that in the weeks following 9/11, I lost my energy for reading fiction, and I am a person who is always reading a novel. I had never before felt that way in my adult life (that fiction was . . . irrelevant); it was a bit startling, to not feel drawn in that direction at all–only toward the news and the analysis and a longing for comfort and connection with others. I remember, too, when Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise was discovered and published that critics mentioned how unusual it was to be able to write a novel about events that were immediately unfolding. I didn’t understand my post-9/11 avoidance of fiction or the comments about Nemirovsky’s work . . . until now. So thanks for pulling this together.
It’s interesting you say that about 9/11, Susan: I had a similar reaction and started reading a lot of non-fiction in the months following, stuff like The Looming Tower. Trying to understand what had happened just seemed so urgent.
At such a time, your responsibility “as a citizen of the world” is to turn your efforts and talents to things that are not made up.
While I also felt a great shock at the events of 9/11 and understand that “real life” is more pressing that the fictional world, I think the claim that reading and/or writing fiction is a luxury to distance ourselves from actual events misses the point of art and literature. I have a coworker who, like many people, reads nothing but nonfiction because she wants to “learn about real things.” My argument is that fiction (the best fiction, that is) contains truths we can’t access anywhere else, and that in fiction we can find some solace and understanding and explanations for the chaos of life. The more fiction I write, the more I find that it’s being shaped by my reactions to the world around me, the less abstract the fiction becomes. Someone (I forget who, maybe it was ZZ Packer) said that to write fiction is to state a point of view, and while I originally thought that was an empty sort of claim, it becomes a more important idea to me as time goes on. Not that I’m writing overtly political novels, but I seem to find myself being drawn to some idea of the “social novel.”
Which is to say, I guess, that I think making art during times of crisis is another duty of the artist, and that making art is never a frivolous activity. Though didactic, overtly political art is usually pretty dull and awful. So I’m not making any sort of pointed comment here, just thinking aloud on your fine blog.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Scott. I agree that fiction offers us valuable ways of understanding the world; one of my more particular interests in this area is the way fiction operates as a kind of moral philosophy, not just in offering examples, as philosophers often use it, but in its formal properties (I’ve written about Martha Nussbaum on this topic, just for instance). That’s why it surprised me a bit how 9/11 made me (temporarily) dissatisfied with fiction–but then another of its more gradual effects has been to make me look around a bit more widely to find the fiction that I read. I like your distinction between overtly political novels and the “social” novel–much of the Victorian fiction I most admire falls into that latter category.
One comment I like, along the lines of fiction stating a point of view, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s suggestion that a novel is essentially saying “the world is like this, isn’t it? do you see it this way too?”
That suggestion of Ishiguro’s is a lot like Gardner’s idea of “moral fiction,” where the author is obliged to reveal what he thinks is a true account of the world he sees (as opposed to moralistic fiction). Someone else (Charles Baxter, maybe) says that one good test of fiction’s quality is to ask of it, “is life like this?” So maybe that’s the direction in which I’m personally moving, and it’s a fine direction that a lot of good fiction (and good art) has taken. Of course “like this” in re life can have some pretty broad interpretations, because not all “realist” fiction is particularly lifelike, and not all fiction that speaks to the existential problems is particularly realistic, but I think we all know what we mean, and what Ishiguro and Gardner meant.
It’s never bad to look around more widely! I keep trying to expand my own horizons, even if (as is so often the case) that leaves me lost sometimes, unsure of what I’m reading or where I am.