Sunday, August 06, 2006

Which Reality?

It has struck me before, and it strikes me now, that Germaine Greer doesn't understand the nature of novels, Professor of Literature though she may be (and I think I'm right that I once read her as saying she doesn't like novels much, which fits.)

In Saturday's Guardian she made her promised riposte to last week's criticisms of her stance over the Brick Lane furore.

"Perhaps [Natasha] Walter doesn't understand how disturbing it is to have
gobbets of your life sampled, digested and dished back up to you in recognisable form."

She goes on to tell us how others have represented her in books, in particular her ex-husband and also David Plante in Difficult Women, and how freaked out she felt. Well, I read the David Plante book, and a specious bit of nastiness it was too, but for God's sake, Germaine, it wasn't a novel! She seems to be making no distinction on this level between this book and the one by her ex-husband, which was indeed a novel, and interestingly, it seems she was far more upset by the latter (even given the fact that, as she implies, she was young then and not yet hardened.)

Well, The Bitch too has had a novel written about her, and she too knows how it feels, and therefore, like Greer, how certain people in Brick Lane might feel. God, what a nitwit that woman in that novel was! And what a sly, self-seeking cow, the way she did the dirty on the wonderful, sensitive, generous yet tortured hero (my ex's vision of himself). God, did I feel defiled, picked over, used, abused, you name it - and the effects were physical, I really did feel voo-dooed and possessed, my identity stolen, I was a trembling wreck and stopped eating for weeks.

But what did The Bitch do about it in the end? She wrote her own novel about the whole episode - ha! Wrote it like it was - yeah! - with a tough and feisty heroine (me) and a right bastard of a manipulative anti-hero. And The Bitch's novel got published - ha!- which the ex's didn't.

How's that for revenge?

Thing is, not long after publication, The Bitch and the partner she had now went into a bar and saw a mutual friend. We walked over, and he stood, looking rather stiff. 'Ive just read your novel,' he told me, and then turned to my partner, his fist clenching. 'You bastard!' he told him.
'It's not us!' we cried, laughing. But he didn't smile, and he was clearly never afterwards convinced.

See? Once real people and real places and real events get forged in the fire of fiction, you can't tell what's left of the reality, it simply doesn't relate to 'reality' in the way Greer, and the Muslim protestors, assume. 'Writers should beware of hanging the carcass of their imaginations around the necks of real people,' she says, but it ain't like that, novels can't be divided up into the reality bits and the imagination bits, it's just one big meld, and the only real 'reality' of a novel is the author's psyche, and if it's a good or great novel it will have the reality of emotional truth.

Greer seems to acknowledge this to some extent when she asks, 'Why did Monica Ali's book have to be called Brick Lane?' seeming to imply that she should have given it some other, fictional name. But the Brick Lane of the novel is the Brick Lane of a novelist's mind and claiming to be nothing else, and the trouble only comes when people fail to read it in this way.

And there is a regrettable tendency nowadays to read novels for fact. Quite apart from the cult of the Author as Personality and the consequent hunger to see connections between authors' books and their lives, there is a tendency to value those novels which provide 'information' and lists. Zadie Smith in a recent literary dispute with, I think, the critic James Wood, insisted that 'there is a beauty in information for its own sake [in novels]' - or words to that effect, and claimed it was something which only her generation appreciates. Grow up, Zadie: the beauty of information in novels depends on what you do with it, and the emotional truth you uncover in the process.

The reason Greer and the protestors and I and my ex (I heard he had a breakdown after my novel was published) were all so freaked is this: novels are not fact or 'information', but they are more powerful than either because they deal in emotional reality. My ex's novel told not the truth about me but the truth about what he wanted to do to me emotionally as our relationship was deteriorating, and my novel did the same in turn. I knew even as I was writing mine that I was doing him an injustice, but I knew too that the couple I was conjuring were not us but a symbol of my notion of a certain state of affairs between men and women. One has only to compare the two books to understand how little fiction is about factual reality, however much it may seem to be (and however even the author or his or her lovers and friends think it is), and how beside the point it is therefore to blame a novelist for getting the facts wrong.

If everyone understood this, then there wouldn't be people seeing Brick Lane as so dangerous or discrediting. While you can understand the Muslim protestors making this category error, it is a great shame that Germaine Greer, who ought to know better, is endorsing them.

People need to take a leaf from the book of The Bitch's stylish and gracious and sporting mother: she blithely refuses to recognise that any of the depictions of mothers in my work are her (even when I think I've skewered her with cruel accuracy).


Adrian Slatcher said...

Well said, and with far more gusto than I'd have managed. I thought it hilarious that Greer was criticising Ali for calling the book "Brick Lane". What should she have done, called it Stone Street or something? A place, as far as I can remember, can't exactly be libelled or upset. And I think you've hit it on the head there - Greer doesn't like novels, probably doesn't even like literature.

damned_cat said...

good lord, to think i used to have a mini nervous breakdown whenever i recognized myself in a frenemy's blog back in college. it must have taken every ounce of courage just to read the ex's novel. i know i could not read an ex's fictionalized assessment of me - not if i wanted to function properly for the next month and a half - no matter how far in the past it was. my fear of literary retaliation is something of an obstacle in my writing - i sand down and repaint so many details of a person that they turn into someone new, and then i'm starting from scratch.