History is like sex. Writers have an uncanny ability to make it into a complication it isn’t. On the one hand we have L P Hartley’s endlessly regurgitated Wittgenstinian guff “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” On the other we have the great German historiographer Ernst Troeltsch’s pompous prognostication that “things happened then much as they happen now”.
The problem with history is exactly the same as the problem with sex. For some strange reason we have taken it upon ourselves to think of it as somehow standing apart from other facets of the worlds we choose to write about. We assume there must be a particular problem when it comes to writing sex as opposed to, say, writing about what a character eats. And we have the same problem when we think about setting our characters’ world in the past as opposed to, say, setting it in a neighbouring country or the world of professional tennis.
And yet history is not a special case. There are no special cases, in writing or in life. As a writer we walk the same tightrope wherever we set our world, and we will write the best book we can when we remember that and don’t look down. On the one hand, humanity is a universal. Troeltsch is right – we all share something. And that something enables us as writers to reach outside our solipsism, to touch and inspire our readers by reaching inside them through the worlds and words we create for our characters. And yet every mind except our own is somehow alien to us, and any attempt truly to get “inside” it will fail, will be little more than a projection of our own inner geography.
The balance is to hold both of these thoughts centre stage and drop neither, to attain empathy without claiming ownership. If we can succeed in that, then we achieve that alchemical magic which leaves our readers changed in their understanding both of themselves and of others. It is as though we reach our authorial fingers inside their psyche and open an internal door for them onto a world that encompasses both parts of themselves of which they were previously unaware and that brings them a filter from outside through which to see themselves and the world anew.
It is interesting that I should be writing this having just written a particularly difficult and introspective piece about writing and gender, specifically whether men can write women and whether men can write about books by women. These debates add an extra level of nuance to the question of how we write history, by showing that the question “How do I write about the Other?” always has a political context.
Let me explain. When men write about women, they have more questions to ask than simply “how do I balance the sameness of our shared humanity and the otherness of our different sex?” There is the additional question of how to deal with their privilege. Privilege is something around to which a conversation will always come when we start talking about writing other people. Because so often writing other people can actually mean “writing on behalf of other people” which can so easily, without us realising it even, become “silencing other people and giving them our words instead.” This is an issue whose importance increases proportionately with the demand our narrative places on those voices being taken seriously. In other words, the more men write women in what purports to be a sympathetic way, the more important it is that they speak in their own voices and not projections of our own, because the greater the damage that is being done when people believe they are hearing one thing only for another to be what they really hear. Or, more simply, the bigger and more damaging the lie we are telling.
It is crucial to get one’s head around this as a writer because writing history is the ultimate act of the privileged. Those whose word has passed are those who not only don’t have a voice in our time but can’t have a voice in our time. We are their mouthpiece, so it matters that when we write their words we realise the whole matted mess of complexities our words bring with them.
Being sensitive to our privilege in relation to the past is, really, an extension of realising that in some cases the balancing act of giving others their words veers a little more to Wittgenstein and a little less to Troeltsch. We might think, we might want to plead even, that we share an inseparable bond of humanity with our characters. And we might want to give them problems that we acknowledge to be universal, that “surely” no one could claim are anything but manifestations of something everyone knows who shares in that common humanity.
But the greater our privilege with regard to the people we are writing, the more aware we need to be that what we see as universal may actually be a projection of something that is deeply personal, or that arises from our position of privilege. To go back to the question of gender, take a man who writes a female protagonist in a love story, a heroine faced with choices about their direction in life, whether to up sticks and move abroad to follow their dream of success as a singer, or to pursue their love for someone they met on holiday. No man would, I hope, be so crass as to say “what’s the problem, I don’t get why they don’t just take off” and have them do just that, simply because that’s what they’d do. A writer with some degree of sensitivity would want to consider the psychological boundaries that may exist for his heroine that he considers to be “non-issues” because of his privilege – at the crudest level, he might feel safe schlepping over to a rough part of Hamburg and setting up in a bedsit so he can follow in the Beatles’ footsteps, but how would his heroine feel about travelling on her own to a strange place whose culture she doesn’t know? Of course she may end up doing the same thing, but the writer will both alienate women reading the book and do something potentially worse, do his heroine the violence of denying her her own inner voice, if he does not take her through her thought process and not his.
When it comes to history, we need to filter both the desire to write what is universal and the desire to write what is different through the lens of privilege. In the case of the former we need to be sensitive to the question whether what we perceive as a universal, timeless truth of human nature is actually just a simple reflection of ourselves. In the case of the latter, we need to ask something similar – when we read those markers that make a period or a culture unique, are we simply grafting our own views onto them?
This isn’t to say there’s no place in writing about the past for using our characters and the world in which we put them to comment on our own world. Indeed, just as so many authors do so well with science fiction, displacing our characters from the familiar surroundings of our world might actually make it easier to identify dilemmas that we face on which we’d like to focus. Suppose for example you want to look at the way different groups are treated in our contemporary cosmopolitan cities. You could, as Zadie Smith or Monica Ali do so effectively, write about today. But there may be many reasons why that would cloud too many issues – from the personal to the political, or simply the fact that you want to draw out a single strand within this theme and it is too complicated to do so in a contemporary setting. So you may transport your story to Nineteenth Century Liverpool, or Venice in the 1500s. Being aware of why you are doing this and what you want to achieve from it will help you to write the book so as both to draw out what you want to say about contemporary society more clearly and to avoid doing a disservice to history.
It is when what you want to do is shed light on the past that you need to be most careful. I would suggest that it is never truly possible to disengage past from present, yourself from your characters, and that when you are sure to make yourself most aware of this is when you will succeed best in doing justice to your characters and your readers.
Dan Holloway has just released “Self-publish With Integrity” http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00HAHFCXQ, a book to guide you through the labyrinth of helpful and not so helpful advice, whatever stage of the self-publishing process you are at. With chapters on, amongst other topics, self-doubt, building a community, and pinning down precisely what it is you want from your writing life, the book will help you to stay true to your goals and retain a passion for writing throughout your literary life.