‘Charles Dickens in a call centre’

Johann Hari strikes a chord

Dickens was constantly charging out into the ‘Great Oven’ of the London night to witness its endless churn. Emile Zola went down the coalmines at Anzin so he could capture their dark dust-filled world in Germinal. John Steinbeck bought an old pie truck and drove down to live in the squatters’ camps filled with people fleeing the dustbowl, and it gave birth to The Grapes Of Wrath. Graham Greene trawled across the dictatorships of the Caribbean and Latin America before writing his novels about them. George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway went to the Spanish Civil War before they smelted their masterpieces about it. Reporting didn’t smother their imaginations, it fertilised them.

Yet there are so many talented young novelists I have read who seem to think the real, heaving world outside their study is a vulgar concern to be left to journalists and TV series like The Wire. They prefer to write books that ruminate on how epistemologically hard it is for ‘The Novel’ to describe the real world, or to retreat into the stories of the distant past, or to concentrate on endless tales of middle-class adultery in Hampstead.

Occasionally, they find great work there, but I long to drag them to a run-down estate in Bradford or one of the climate change protest camps in Kent or to the club scene in Shoreditch or anywhere real and alive, to give them the best fuel for their talents.

Norm thinks this approach is to narrow the range of fiction. I don’t. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a smaller range of fictional concerns, outside a closed society. Norm creates a false apposition between ‘staying home’ and ‘charging out into the big, wide, thronging world’; but most of the great writers Hari mentions do concentrate on the personal, on ‘one family, one friendship, one betrayal’ against a wider backdrop. In much contemporary fiction today, we don’t get that backdrop, and the disinterest in the world beyond the local is worrying.

Not so much in the sense that we simply must have a State of England ’09 book, more a kind of baffled disappointment you feel when a friend turns down a special opportunity. There’s so much material, so much going on, more than in my adult lifetime – how could you not want to write about it? And yet people don’t want to write about it, or at least don’t want to publish about it.  

Talk like this, of course, and you’ll be accused of Victorianism, of Establishment Literary Fiction, as if plot and character and scope are patrician nineteenth-century concepts. You will be told that you are reducing fiction to investigative journalism – in fact, I’d lay money that dear old Stephen is writing more or less that same response, except at far greater length.

Except that journalism can’t go down deep, can’t nail the human condition, and can’t break your heart. When it does – when David Simon does it – it doesn’t just read like literature: it is literature.

Still, for all Hari’s good points, he misunderstands ‘the clichéd advice given to all young writers, which has long since hardened into a dogma: write about what you know.’ In its true spirit, this doesn’t mean write about what you know in your life, because most of us don’t lead interesting lives. As Stephen King said, it’s about writing what you know in your heart and soul. And you can do that anywhere.


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