Friday, July 18, 2014

The Writer in a Political World

There was a revival of a quotation by Marxist-theorist Terry Eagleton,  That "there is no
eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life". The quote - originally from 2007 - perhaps coincided with the falling away of a generation of writers who were also political activists, or activists who were also acclaimed writers. Since then we have lost two political writers old enough to recall the Second World War, Lessing and Pinter. I suspect the firebrands that Eagleton missed were always in short supply anyway. The quote was recalled by John Pilger, in an interesting piece on the way our news media is increasingly becoming an unreliable source.  Though there remain plenty of journalists who also write fiction, its more often the celebrated novelist who gets asked their opinion, whether it Pullman on humanism, Amis on terrorism or Rowling on social issues.

Many of our best contemporary writers are explicitly addressing the complex world we are in - A.L. Kennedy, China Mieville, David Mitchell, David Peace, Nicola Barker, Tom McCarthy for instance - though maybe only Mieville is as equally known for his political viewpoints. 

The disconnect between writers and politics is, I think, a real one, in many ways. English literature is backwards looking, even in a poltically charged novel like "Wolf Hall", and whilst subsequent poet laureates, Motion and Duffy, have spearheaded left-leaning political campaigns, they've done it against a background of increasingly conventional writing. Late period Pinter turned out small, polemical poems that had none of the nuance of "The Birthday Party" or "Betrayal", yet to be politically engaged is surely to be direct. Its the politicians who mangle language ("Spare room subsidy" or "bedroom tax"?)

I've rarely known a period when there are so many writers who are political. Almost all the younger poets I know are to some degree or other activists - whether contributing to campaigns and campaign anthologies such as "Poems for Pussy Riot", or running politically inclined readings.

Our "major" writers are part of an establishment that may not be as well off or as politically connected as Gore Vidal in America, but are definitely part of that very British (or very London) "clique" that revolves around Radio 4, the broadsheets and the Arts Council. We've always been sniffy about the arts in Britain, so that though we are happy to place a banker at the heart of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, writers are expected to be mere entertainers or informers.  I wait for Simon Armitage to be made a minister for business for instance. When Ian McEwan was interviewed a while back he talked about how for a brief moment he thought he could somehow get to Tony Blair and convince him of the folly of the war in Iraq. His own Iraq folly, the novel "Saturday" managed to skirt around its major event, the Stop the War march, to concentrate on a middle class drama of stranger-danger. Robert Harris, a writer who was closer to Blair at one point, damned him in his novel "The Ghost." Harris, who has written about the machinations of power in ancient Rome, could recognise the contemporary parallels.

But if you are someone like myself, who is struggling to get any recognition as a writer - then however political your work might be - its not likely to be a big selling point. I felt my poetry collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" had its fair share of politics (walk on parts for Saddam Hussein and the Taliban), but because I also write about other stuff, it often gets ignored.

The world moves on so fast that the writer can be left behind - however engaged. Simply binaries that sustained political writers in the West since at least the 1930s, have all but disappeared. The writers I listed above are humanists above all else, though the explicit story of Peace's Red Riding novels is the corruption of the great British police force. Domestic drama is becoming stranger than fiction, as a cavalcade of 1970s light entertainers are convicted of sex offences. It appears that Malcolm Maclaren, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were after all the good guys, not the moral turpitude that the establishment had them as at the time.

The two terrible events of this week - the escalation of the bombings in Gaza (culminating - though that's probably the wrong word) in the killing of four boys playing on a beach, followed by yesterday's downing of a passenger jet by surface to air missiles fired from Ukraine - are the stuff of HBO drama. Jack Bauer must be on speed dial.

Would a writer dare interact with these scripts? Who are the good guys in a Ukraine where the far right have also been on the rise, as Russia goes back to the Soviet playbook. KGB Putin is no longer the statesman that we had hoped for a  few years a back, but a cold war villain. Funnily enough I have recently written stories about a U.S. drone in Afghanistan and about Putin, yet they're not in the shops yet (though the former will be published later in the year). I've always written about politicians, conspiracies, and issues, though I can't say that the publishing world has been biting my hand off to read or publish them.

More explicitly "left" artists - poets such as Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney or John G. Hall - have done a good job of carving out a niche that provides a satisfactory art but with an unequivocal political intent - but of course, when Maxine  Peake revived Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy" last year in Manchester, what was notable (to me at least), was that the festival programmers hadn't gone looking for any modern Shelley's. Reading about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, the artist and thinker in me, wonders whether the young Asian men going to fight in Syria should not be seen as terrorists but as the equivalents of Orwell, Hemingway, Laurie Lee and others who fought in Spain. Hard one, given the brutal medieval ideology that seems at the heart of some of these conflicts.

What we need more of, I think, is writing that has not a liberal western handwringing to it; or an inbuilt anti-American bias; but first hand experience of a world that we only see down the lens of TV or internet.

Manchester's Comma Press is about to publish "The Book of Gaza", latest in its series of city-based short stories. Here though, the writers and editor are not passive bystanders of world events, but as the tightening of the noose around the prison camp of Palestine continues, trapped within a territory that is currently being bombed. It may seem trite to try and promote a book on the back of a tragedy, but given that this book was commissioned and written when the conflict had gone off the front pages, I feel that if there's ever a time to read about Palestine now is the time. Whatever my thoughts on the crisis or the leadership of both Palestine and Israel, as a writer I know that any power I have rests not in my activism but in my words. There are times when words aren't enough.

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