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.