Politics and Writing (Fiction)

I have long been engaged in writing-fiction and non-fiction- and I have always been attentive to politics. I have written non-fiction work about politics, and I have written fiction that had an underlying political resonance. Politics and writing are inescapably intertwined.

First, let me explain what I mean by politics. Politics refers of course to the forms and processes of government: elections, parties, media, dictatorships, democracies etc. But to me the concept has a much wider remit. It concerns all relationships of power. This covers the institutions and policies of government, but it also refers to human relationships. There is, for example, a politics of the family. A politics of gender. A politics of race. And so on. Fiction, which nearly always centres on human relationships-often within families- is thus necessarily a political enterprise.

This does not necessarily mean didactic or polemical writing, which often does not work as storytelling, but rather an exploration of the emotional power relationships between people, in a social context. There are for example a number of novels that centre on characters’ struggles within and against social norms and constraints. (‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ come to mind.) In this way, fiction is always a political endeavour of some kind, even where the overt politics of the time is ignored. Jane Austen’s novels appear to ignore the wider macro political world (No mention of the French revolution for example even though it was contemporaneous with her work), but there is very much a politics of gender, class and the family.

Is it possible to write good fiction that directly engages with politics in the governmental sense? I think it is, but it’s much harder. The danger of course is that political polemic is imposed on characters who do not feel real but appear as cyphers for ideas. This is not necessarily so, but it is a problem. Many years ago I studied the works of British playwright Trevor Griffiths, whose overt intention was to write political drama. For example, The Party (involves lots of political debate); Bill Brand (about a left-wing MP); Country (the politics of post-war UK; Reds (Griffiths wrote the script for a film about American Left) and others. For me, the subtle hints of Country work better than the overt debates of The Party. But he did demonstrate the possibility of writing political drama that works.

The politics of writing refers not only to ‘content’ but also to form. There is an argument that suggests that classical ‘realism’ positions the reader in the all-knowing God-like position of the author /narrator and makes this view the one and only Truth. Furthermore, it implies that there is a single Truth to be known. The argument goes that this positioning of the readers is authoritarian and intrinsically conservative in its closing down of possibilities. It is suggested that anti-realist (modernist) forms that disrupt the known narrative structures and show both the construction of stories and multiple viewpoints are politically more progressive (think Godard, Joyce, Fowles). In my view, this can be the case for some readers who are themselves well educated in questions of form, but for many the disruption of known forms creates a barrier to access and understanding. Modernist writing can illuminate, but is often obscure. It is only possible to understand disruptive work if one is already familiar with the language. For me, social realism talks the language of wider audiences and thus still has a role to play.

The bottom line for me is that writing is necessarily ‘political’ (in the wider sense), the question for writers is: how self-conscious and deliberate is this politics?

Explaining the Rise of Trumpism

We live in turbulent times. Times of fast, sometimes inexplicable, change. But change is not new, it is intrinsic to our way of life.

‘All that’s solid melts into air’, wrote Marx when describing in the coming of modernity and the dynamism of capitalism. Traditional societies were essentially stable and changed little (which is not to say that they didn’t change at all), whereas modernity brought continuous change and ‘melted’ tradition. Today, some 170 years after Marx wrote those lines, change has speeded up so that now we may talk of ‘accelerated modernity.’ Change is continuous and rapid. We can barely pause to take a breath.

Consider my mother: she was born in 1922 and witnessed a depression, a world war, a torrent of motor cars (instead of a trickle); the arrival of television, a moon landing, personal computers, jet flights, mass tourism, the internet, more wars….and so on. And it is not so long ago that I had my first lap top, smart phone, watched television be eclipsed by streaming and seen the realisation of climate change…. Not to mention a pandemic!

However, more significant than all these technological changes, I believe, have been cultural changes that have seen the destabilisation of the concept of truth, the fragmentation of homogeneous cultures, the splintering of the family, information overload and the decline of authoritative accounts of ‘right and wrong.’

Once, not too long ago, people believed that there was one objective truth that could be discovered, possibly by science. In tandem, there was a widespread sense that there was something solid to believe in (e.g. progress). We no longer have faith in one absolute truth or belief system. Rather, we accept that there are a multitude of context specific truths and beliefs.

Many people struggle in times of rapid change and feel the need for certainty. All the more so when those changes undermine their social and economic well-being. It is no coincidence that populist authoritarian regimes like the German Nazi’s and the US’s very own Donald Trump (though I do not think the two are identical) arose in times of great uncertainty. A good many people look to authoritarian father figures for certainty about who to blame and what to do. Simple slogans often do the trick. Many Trump supporters felt they were being screwed by the system. They were right. But they got the wrong targets and the wrong solutions. The solutions are complex and uncertain. Trump offered a (false) promise of simple solutions and a certain destination (Make America Great Again).

What to do? My brief answer (which would require more space to fully address) is through a combination of accepting evidence as a necessary if contingent basis of action, along with the values of democracy, respect, compassion, equality, and justice.

I note that in a blog that set out to be about writing, I have written a couple of pieces about politics. I might return to the question of writing and politics another day. But for now I would note that, for me, writers should address the concerns of their times (or any time) as a part of their purpose.

The Wire, revisited

I’ve been re-watching the TV series The Wire which originally screened between 2002 and 2008. When I saw it the first time I thought it was one of the best pieces of TV drama ever made, and as I view it for a second time I still hold that opinion. The series has stood the test of time. Why? Because the writing is outstanding. The characters are multi-dimensional, the dialogue is convincing, the social world is drawn in such detail it feels ‘real’ and the plot is gripping and complex. Above all, the moral world is nuanced and never reduced to simple judgements of right and wrong. ‘Good’ characters sometimes do ‘bad’ things and ‘bad’ characters sometimes act with integrity and compassion. Ethical judgements are always held within the world that has been drawn and we are able to see the economic, social and cultural determinates of behaviour. For example, Omar is a killer and yet there is code at work, he never kills outside the drug dealing world (the game). We learn about the social and emotional deprivations that led him into that world and we also watch him act ethically and compassionately within his moral world in relation to injustice and suffering.

The Wire is not the only great TV drama. Writer David Simon also penned the fabulous Treme, and more recently The Bureau held my attention and offered insight into questions of identity, geo politics and the psychology of spies. Ku’damm 59 was visually sumptuous and gripping in both its story development and its psychological insights. Right now I am enjoying The Queens Gambit, (its good but not in the same league as The Wire) and there are many more excellent television drama’s.

My central point here is that much maligned medium of television, and indeed genre drama, is capable of producing some of the very best writing on the planet. I enjoy reading novels and I am writing both short stories and a novel. High on my list of favoured writers are Colm Toibin, John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, and E.L Doctorow. And there are more of course. But the idea that literature and high culture are always superior to popular culture, and television in particular, is mistaken. Judgements made about high / low cultural divisions are simply distinctions that uphold the views of a self-appointed cultural elite aimed at bolstering their own social position and do not accord with any kind of objective criteria. High-low cultural distinctions are philosophically unsustainable in any convincing way. Yes, there is ‘bad’ television, but there are ‘bad’ novels and ‘bad’ films too. Literature is great. But if you are interested in fabulous writing, television can also offer you insights.

McNulty (left) and Omar (right)

I still write

“I still write. What else can I do? It is my habit and it is also my profession. For a long while I treated my pen as my sword: now I realise how helpless we are. It does not matter. I am still writing, I shall write books; they are needed; they have use all the same. Culture saves nothing and nobody, nor does it justify. But it is a product of man (sic), he projects himself through it and recognises himself in it; this critical mirror does show him his image.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Words, (1967:157).

Not my words but I share the sentiment…..

A Pessimists Defence of Liberal Democracy

As I watched Trumps storm troopers invade Capitol Hill and the heartland of the US political system, I was reminded that Liberal Democracy (representative systems with checks and balances as in the U.K; USA; France etc. as opposed to authoritarian regimes as in Russia and China) is a precious and fragile thing that needs to be defended. As climate change bites harder, and global population movement becomes greater and more urgent, I fear that some Liberal Democracies will succumb to a populist authoritarianism ‘justified’ by anti-migration sentiments and resource competition. In this context it is necessary to defend the institutions of Liberal Democracy.

 I haven’t always felt this way. As a young man I was keenly aware of the structures of class and culture in Britain and I didn’t like it, not one bit; not Eton public school, not the Dons of Cambridge university, not the Conservative Party, not the Church of England, not the monarchy, not debutant balls, not Royal Ascot, not fox hunting, not the Henley regatta, and most definitely not the British political and military establishment.

I was influenced both by Marxism and by Sartre’s vision of human freedom in which not only are we radically free to make choices, we must do so, and in good faith. From Marxism I learned about class and power. From Sartre I learned that we are not the victims of a metaphysical destiny but can shape our own lives. Framed by these philosophies, I saw that we could break away from our political and cultural traditions, for we are not bound to them by either history or metaphysics. I saw myself as a part Marcuse’s Great Refusal. I read literature; Kerouac, Ginsberg and Hesse; political philosophy; Marx, Raymond Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre; I danced to The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane; I listened to Tariq Ali and Stuart Hall, I took LSD and smoked Marijuana, and I joined political protests. I dreamed of a society of justice amongst equals and regarded Liberal Democracy as at best a temporary and inadequate stop over en route to a better world, and at worst an obstacle to it.

My dreams didn’t come true of course. Today I regard the setting up of the Welfare state in the UK by the Labour Party in the context of a Liberal Democracy as perhaps the greatest political achievement of all time. Right now there is little evidence of popular support for radical systemic political change in the West at all, let alone ‘revolution’. Reform seems to be the only possible way to move forward within Liberal Democracies. Here Liberalism involves a balancing act between individual freedoms and a reduction of suffering through collective (state) action. And it allows individual to pursue their personal goals as long as they don’t hurt others. When we look across the globe and across history, Liberal Democracy is the best actually existing political system that humans have come up with. It is not what we might dream of (it is not what I dreamed of) but it is as good as it gets (at least for the time being). Human beings no longer appear to me to be perfectible in some imagined utopia and in this sense I have adopted a more pessimistic, tragic, view of what it is to be human.

This does not mean that we have to accept Liberal Democracy as it stands. On the contrary, we should try to push for the extension of democratic practices within the Liberal Democratic framework. That is to say, to hold Liberalism to account and demand that it delivers on its promises. If Liberal Democracies proclaim us to be free equals, lets us push for the promise to be fulfilled. Let us demand a radical democracy. As we face a climate emergency we must try and push states to act; the non-violent protests of Extinction Rebellion, for example, are entirely consistent with Liberal Democracy, and indeed it is Liberal Democracy that allows them to happen.

A commitment to Liberal Democracy is historically contingent and we may one day come up with something better, (it does not necessarily mark the ‘end of history’ as Fukuyama put it) but for the time being, it’s the best we’ve got for all pragmatic (my account draws on Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism) purposes. A Green Social Democracy that functions within the institutions of Liberal Democracy seems to me to be the best hope we have for the reduction of human suffering. I no longer think the revolution is upon us. And in so far as a radical political shift is immanent, I fear it will be to the Right. Hence the plea from this old Lefty to defend Liberal Democracy.

Flash Fiction: Evil is Ordinary

image by Colton Sturgeon @Unsplash

On television she had seen this killer in America who had locked up his daughter in a dungeon deep below their house. The Evil Dude’s dark secret remained hidden year upon dark year, because he lived on an isolated farm in Nebraska, or Kansas, or some mythical place that made her think of cowboys and cattle and wide open ranges. For ten years he had raped his daughter over and over again. When she gave birth the man locked up his granddaughter as well. On her release years later the granddaughter had never seen any other human being in the whole wide world except her mother and that monster.

            On the TV news, they said that the Evil Dude had turned a bit weird after his wife ran off to Mexico with another man. The townsfolk said he began to wear the same clothes day after day so that people would cross the road to avoid the smell. And he didn’t stop in the local hotel anymore for a drink and a jaw-wag. The storekeeper said he must have been mighty lonesome and everyone reckoned his queer behaviour was down to heartbreak. The locals said that before his wife ran away he was a neighbourly kind of guy who always said howdy and paid his bills on time.

‘I can’t believe it,’ said the storekeeper. ‘He seemed like a good Christian man. I guess you never can tell.’

The police found the body of his strangled wife buried under a tree in the backyard.

            She watched on T.V as the killer arrived at the courthouse in a black prison wagon with slits for windows. As he was escorted up the steps by a posse of armed guards she was shocked to see that he looked like an ordinary middle-aged man with a balding head and a beer belly. He didn’t have horns and a forked tail. And he wasn’t sporting a swastika tattoo. She figured that she might sit next to him on a bus, or walk behind him on the pavement, and never know how wicked he was. And if wickedness looked normal then perhaps it didn’t take a special kind of person to do terrible things. The face of evil could belong to your neighbour, or your teacher, or your dad.

Evil was ordinary.

Without beginning or end

Endless universe, science fiction image, deep space with hot stars, starfields. Incredibly beautiful cosmic landscape. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

I was sitting on my deck the other day and I experienced a strong feeling that I was part of an endless unfolding universe (for want of a better term, my sense was not of an enclosed universe but of an open and endless ‘space’) with no beginning and no end, in which everything is connected to everything else. It would go on with or without me and all the atoms / electrons etc. that make up me would remain as a part of that universe (and though ‘my’ consciousness might not carry on, consciousness as such would).

Now, this is hardly a new idea, it’s central to Buddhism for example (traditional Buddhism calls it ‘co-dependent arising’. Thich Naht Hahn calls it ‘Interbeing’) and it’s an idea I am very familiar with. I do not identify with the idea of being a Buddhist, or with its rituals and organisations, but I do still have a commitment to much of the philosophy (secular Buddhism). The importance of this experience to me was not the idea as such, but the that I felt this idea and the feeling made it more salient. I have encountered the idea and experienced the feeling before. It comes and it goes and I don’t know if I will hang on to the feeling for long or not. But I am interested in the ‘fact’ that ideas are more powerful when they are also feelings. I would argue all ideas carry an emotional valence, but some are more powerful than others. We become committed to an idea when we feel it.

Some have argued that there are necessary consequences that follow from our recognition of ‘interbeing’, compassion for example. I am not sure that anything necessarily or inevitably follows from the idea or the feeling. I did however experience a sense of comfort or wellbeing in that moment; that everything was OK, even in the face of complete uncertainty (since everything arises and falls away); that there is something indestructible in the fabric of the beginningless beginning and the endless end.

On Reasons to Write

Photo by Olha Ruskykh on Pexels.com

In the early months of 2020, Australia- where I live- experienced its worst ever bush fires. Climate scientists agree that climate change has made the fires more frequent and more intense than they might otherwise have been. Yes, the sunburnt country has always experienced bushfires, but nothing with the ferocity we witnessed this year. I am lucky enough to have escaped direct experience of the fires, but I watched horrified and yet mesmerised- like drivers passing by a motor vehicle accident-at scenes straight of a Science Fiction movie. The red sky, the red clouds, the eerie feeling of apocalypse now!

One potential apocalypse was followed by another: COVID 19. Again, I have been lucky. I have not (as yet) contracted the virus nor, to my knowledge, have any of my friends and family. I reminded though by the daily news (and I feel somehow morally obligated to watch the news) that across the planet millions have been infected, disable and died.

Throughout the bushfires and COVID 19 I have continued to spend at least some of my time writing fiction. But why write fiction when climate change and COVID 19 constitute an existential threat that jeopardises our very continuation?

The first reason I write is because I enjoy it. When I sit down and write I am able, on a good day, to enter the experience of flow. That is to say, I am absorbed in the task, which is challenging but doable, to the extent that time is suspended. While I have always been a political animal in the sense that I think human life is shot through with power relations and that politics matters, we need more than politics to sustain us. I find writing to be a psychologically satisfying practice.

As a young man I was influenced by Sartre and his notion of ‘engaged literature’. Sartre’s staring point is freedom. Thus, a writer exercises h/er freedom and defines h/erself by engaging willingly and consciously in the intentional action of writing. Any individual’s freedom is dependent on the freedom of others and so my freedom is dependent on yours. Engagement is then understood as an individual ethical challenge involving a responsibility of turning freely made choices to socially useful ends.

To me, engaged writing does not mean didactic or overtly political writing. It means writing about the human condition in ways that explore moral dilemmas, our responses and the possibilities that confront us. The best writing explores what it is to be human as we struggle to understand who we are. According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, literature (he cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as an example) is more able to reset our moral and political compass than is philosophy.

Literature is a social phenomenon; it is generated in specific social contexts and meaning is produced in the interaction between text and reader. Reading and writing involves and evokes shared social practices, values and social connection. Writing fiction can both explore the human condition and reaffirm the social. In a cultural world that emphasises the individual achievement as the most important good, constituting and reaffirming the social is of critical significance.

There is a Zen Koan that asks the question ‘who am I?’. We engage in a process of asking ‘who am I?’ and strip away layer after layer of partial answers. Am I my body? Yes, but not only my body. Am I my thoughts? Yes, but not only my thoughts. Am I my social roles? Yes, but not only social roles. And so on. There is never a foundational answer. I feel similarly about writing fiction (or indeed any form of writing). We explore what it is to be human without ever coming to a definitive answer and in doing so affirm our humanity as vulnerable creatures bobbing on the ocean of life.

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