What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.

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“Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head”

Harkaway says he wrote the novel “like a 3D printer”, swivelling round in his chair to demonstrate how he would add a chunk of narrative to each strand in turn before swinging back over to add the next piece. By spring 2016 he had a first draft and enlisted the help of seven or eight people to make sure it all made sense. But when the queries started coming in, he found his own novel had escaped him.

“It’s the first book where I’ve been totally unable to carry all of it in my head,” he says. “I had to use a whiteboard, I had thousands and thousands of notes in my Evernote folder, I had photographs of the whiteboard. This office, when I was editing it for the final time, looked like one of those terrifying nests that psychopaths make in American cop shows.” In the end, he “had to trust that I knew what I was doing when I put it together”.

Sometimes editors would pick up on something they thought was particularly clever and Harkaway would have to hold up his hand and say it was a consequence of the way he’d written the novel. “Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head, but this …” He shakes his head. “I hadn’t realised the extent to which, if you really crank up the complexity level you start to get responses that feel alive.”

Nick Harkaway interview

“Fiction can fly under the radar of those who would manipulate the past”

But why fictionalise this history? Surely what we need in the age of “post-truth” is a bit of good old-fashioned truth? For one, fiction can fly under the radar of those who would manipulate the past (for non-fictional ends); it comes out with its hands up, confessing its falsity.

More importantly, fiction sidesteps identity politics – that monstrous but inevitable byproduct of “free” news. When the news is “free” what’s really on sale is us, the audience (to the advertisers), and for that sale to work, our demographic identity has to be tied, predictably, to all our behaviour; not just our purchasing habits but our affiliations and sympathies. Fiction is one of the few things that allows us to completely uncouple our sympathies from our sense of personal identity. We can sympathise with those we don’t identify with; we can connect with the unfamiliar, we can take the other’s side.

Ra Page, on Protest: Stories of Resistance

The Handmaid’s Tale

Spoiler alert!

I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, and saw the final episode last weekend.

While it is good TV, I find it interesting that The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama about an invented dystopia full of sexual violence, is seen as ‘important’ TV, while something like Three Girls, a dramatisation of real-world sexual violence that tells us how and why the sexual violence was able to happen and was allowed to happen, while critically acclaimed, has not received the ‘important’ label?

You can write about, or make a TV show about, any subject you like, as long as you do it well and treat it with respect. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly well made in terms of production values, acting etc., and it does not treat it’s subject as trivial. But I cannot convince myself that it is ‘important’.

Watching TV is not, and never will be, ‘activism’, and when what you are watching is fiction, you are not ‘waking yourself up’ to anything.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale’s popularity due to the fact that we, the audience, can get a vicarious thrill when we know that it isn’t real? But that explanation suggests that it is only entertainment after all.

Or, to be cynical, The Handmaid’s Tale is a little too slick and glossy, the locations, the interiors, the colour palates, the aging down of the Commander and Serena Joy – real life Rochdale will never be as glamourous as this particular rendering of Gilead. Also, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, a middle-class professional woman ‘just like us’ is easier to empathise with than troubled working-class girls whose lives are so removed from our own.

So what did I think of it as an adaptation? I wrote my GCSE English Literature project on The Handmaid’s Tale, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and John Wyndham’s short story ‘Consider Her Ways’, but that was over 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I have read it since then; at one point I knew the book inside out, but I can’t claim that now.

The show became more interesting from episode 6 onwards, with the arrival of the (female) Mexican Ambassador, when the story deviates from the original, and the world-building is expanded.

There are lots of good small details, like the second Ofglen saying how she is better off now than before the coup, when she was a homeless drug-addicted prostitute, and wasn’t going to mess it up.

We are also told about an Aunt defecting to Canada, and Martha’s plotting sabotage. In the book Offred is completely passive, and we only see the world from her point of view, so these changes are welcome. We see the human toll, not just on the Handmaids, but on the Wives forced into this situation as well. There are lots of these humanising moments, like Serena Joy saying “what did you think would happen” after the previous Offred hanged herself.

The environmental details are an interesting addition; the Gilead officials boast of their carbon-reduction and solar power. Do Gilead’s ‘green credentials’ make it a more ambiguous dystopia, or is this a commentary on ‘green washing’? There are, and have been, many conflicts between human rights and environmental justice in the real word, but there is no direct causal link between the human right’s abuses in Gilead and its environmental improvements – this isn’t the same as the toxic clean-up in the colonies (mentioned once or twice in the show but not shown).

I like that they showed some of the background of the coup, how vulnerable, purposeless young men could be drawn in, and also the self-serving hypocrisy of the Commanders, horse-trading over the status of the Handmaids in order to get their wives on board.

One of the most interesting details is, in my opinion, the characterisation of Aunt Lydia; she is shown genuinely caring about her ‘girls’, even when, on other occasions, she is cutting their eyes out. A ‘bad guy’ who genuinely believes in the righteousness of what they are doing is far more interesting (and informative) than one who is acting out of sadism or cynical self-interest.

Making Gilead multiracial is odd, as if there is no link between religious fundamentalism and white supremacism (which was there in the book) in the US in real life – is an ‘inclusive dystopia’ really something we need as viewers? As this article points out, making it multiracial is a way of bypassing racism without tackling it head-on.

There are changes that don’t really work; using industrial farm equipment to ‘tag’ the Handmaid’s ears is over the top; we microchip pets these days, it feels inserted for shock value only, as if the cattle-prods, amputations, and savage beatings aren’t socking enough.

There are small things like June saying she is allowed to shave her legs once a month. Why, except to give an explanation for the actress’ hairless less? Hairy legs would not fit in with the show’s aesthetics; neither would a scene of her moisturising herself with butter, so those were taken out, as were the ‘Econowives’ in their cheap stripy dresses, that wouldn’t have looked good either.

I found some of the soundtrack choices jarring and inappropriate; it’s a lazy short-cut, to get the soundtrack to do the work of the narrative, to force an emotional reaction, or an association with another work of fiction.

It makes no sense to have fertile women in Jezebel’s, when they are a rare enough commodity to be tradeable on the world market – they could cut off both hands and feet to make them biddable first (I think this threat is in the book), and there would be plenty of young, infertile women to fill the ranks at Jezebel’s – which brings us to another problem (with the book as well) why not just lobotomise them all to begin with? It has historical precedence, but then there would be no story in the first place (there is no story without some contrivance)!

It’s good that they didn’t sanitise Jezebel’s (I was going to write ‘didn’t glamourize’ but I think it was as ‘aestheticised’ as the rest of the series), didn’t play into a ‘happy hooker’ narrative (which would have been easy to do – the Commander says the women prefer it there, but the women don’t actually look happy). The fetishisation of the stump of a woman’s severed hand, and June catching a glimpse of two women dressed up as a Handmaid and a Wife, showed the contempt the men really felt for all women, even the ‘good’ ones. Jezebel’s also has the one and only appearance of an obese character, a woman doubly objectified, first by being dressed in fetish gear, second by only being shown from behind.

Some things have been updated since the 1985 publication of the book. Luke is picked up by ex-army women on the run to Canada; this is another good addition, and another example of showing women not being passive victims. (But I found Luke’s ability to hike through winter forests after being shot in the stomach and surviving his ambulance plunging off a bridge to be ridiculously macho.)

Shutting down all the women’s bank accounts, in our globalised age, would, I imagine, be very difficult, but it is a vital plot component.

While it’s good that the TV show includes more acts of women’s rebellion, I think they overdo it with the Handmaids, with the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ voice-over, and calling them an army in uniform, and showing them marching in formation. It doesn’t fit with the totalitarianism shown elsewhere.

The big act of rebellion in the final episode is moving; in the book, June is completely passive, and at the end of the series, she is still rescued by men, the same as in the book.

“The writing life is full of contradictions. It depends on hours at a desk, but requires the author to be connected to the world”

The second trick is to leave the house. The writing life is full of contradictions. It depends on hours at a desk, but requires the author to be connected to the world. Setting out into the day like a useful member of society, helps.

The writing itself is hard to relate. It is a process of adding and taking away; deep thought and waking dreams; hard technical graft and the occasional leap of realisation. I drink lots of tea, chew gum and occasionally stand up and stretch. When I feel stuck, I put my head on the desk and try to reach that place between dreams and awareness, where the unconscious lives.

Louise Welsh, My writing day

“Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world”

Whitehead said that landing the £2,017 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – was wonderful, and that The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature”. A Guardian review of the novel said that “it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America”.

“Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Colson Whitehead adds Arthur C Clarke award to growing prize haul

“All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense”

But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is.

Jedediah Purdy