Sunday, December 16, 2007

Politics and the Writer

If only Martin Amis had watched his language. Now we have the latest in Terry Eagleton's reaction to Amis's connotational errors. He says this to the Observer's Tim Adams:
I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on such matters [as terrorism] any more than we should listen to window cleaners.
Well, all I can say then is that Marxist literary theory has come a heck of a long way from the Soviet concept of literature as politically useful, because, although he doesn't actually say it, this is coming very close to saying that fiction itself has nothing politically useful to say, or at least is likely to be interpreted as saying this, without the careful distinction being made between novelists' public pronouncements and their novels. And such a notion dovetails dangerously with those of a publishing world largely intent on 'entertainment' rather than thoughtful or politically-committed literature.

No wonder that, as Tom Chatfield says in a comment on my post about the recent Manchester University debate on Literature and Terrorism, 'literature' that evening was a very little word. In the intervening days it has become clearer to me that that 'debate' not only pushed literature aside for the issues themselves, but actively and in process privileged public discourse over literature - and worse, colluded in the cult of personality - by allowing Amis's predicament and defence of his public pronouncements to be the focus.

Even so, I'd like to question that distinction between the importance of a novelist's work and that of his or her public pronouncements. 'I don't know where [novelists'] status comes from,' says Eagleton (by which he means the status which gives them a right to make public political statements). This is another statement implying a reductive attitude to literature and an underestimation of its potential cultural power. If novels matter to people, if they have been affected by them emotionally and politically, then it is natural for people to want to hear what novelists have to say on matters of political urgency. Well-known novelists, in other words, already have a voice. Of course they need to be careful how they use it, and in my view Amis should have been far more circumspect (and dropped his fictive tropes of irony and exaggerated rhetoric) before he spoke publicly and outside the accustomed parameters of fictive expression.

For me this comes at a weekend when fiction and political action have collided with tear-wrenching urgency. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was asked to contribute to 'Fragments from the Dark', an anthology of fiction pieces and poetry about exile and home, which will appear in the summer from the publishing arm of Hafan (Haven), the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group. This week coordinating editor Jeni Williams alerts me to a heartbreaking article in the New Statesman about the plight of children being imprisoned in UK deportation holding centres, in breach of a key UN Convention. Easy pickings for a government with deportation targets to achieve, many of the families are simply lone mothers and children who have fled domestic or political violence, taken suddenly at dawn from their UK homes - and settled and ordered lives in the community which can include GCSEs - to be kept in the centres without adequate clothes or food. Even if they are eventually returned to their UK homes, most of these children will be seriously emotionally damaged. Jeni also copies me the email she has sent to the Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green, who is trying to combat this situation, in which she describes with heart-rending vividness families she is working with in these situations.

Personally, on political issues I always feel happiest sticking to what I do best, ie saying it through fiction, but you know, sometimes there just isn't the time.

Email to support The Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green at info.request@11million.org.uk
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