The writer of Genesis gives us a chapter on the emergence of heaven and earth from void and chaos. St. John the Divine – implicitly explaining why he’s possibly the better writer – manages the same process in five short verses, and begins, famously with ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – sic, capitalised (at least in the King James version, which is surely the only one for an Anglophone writer). The Word, John suggests, imposed form on the void. God created the universe by giving it a voice, by being its voice perhaps, in St. John’s mythology.
John isn’t the only writer I know of who cites as a reason for writing the need to impose order on a seemingly chaotic world. Writers’ minds tend to be full of questions. How, why, who, when, what if? Fiction writers go on to construct elaborate universes of their own in which to seek answers to these questions. They don’t always succeed. Perhaps the best writers never succeed and it is the journey that matters, not the destination. When you read a writer you respond to, of course, she may well offer you answers to your own questions even while failing to answer the ones she posed to herself. She has her own voice, but she also has the power to give you yours.
I recently read Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest. For those who have neither read it nor followed the controversy it has whipped up, it can be described as a romantic and social comedy set in a fictionalised (but very thinly fictionalised) Auschwitz. That’s right. A romantic comedy set in Auschwitz. Among the staff and their families to be precise. Most right-minded people’s initial reaction to this is to recoil with extreme distaste. It was mine, and then I thought, wait a minute, isn’t a book which causes me to recoil with extreme distaste from the Holocaust actually getting closer to the truth than one which fills me with pious indignation? By stripping the history of the moral accretions of the post war period, of the entirely inadequate sentimentality in which it has been clothed by subsequent generations of commentators who are both voyeuristic and cloaked with a guilt which isn’t, actually, theirs, hasn’t Amis shifted us closer to the right response? Disgust. This is a novel whose voice is imbued with what Hannah Arendt famously called ‘the banality of evil’ and it is the only piece of Holocaust writing other than Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (which concludes there is no language to describe the Holocaust, no adequate voice in which to address it) which has in any way clarified the way I feel about it.
The relevance of this should be obvious. That species of banal, every day evil is still among us. It informs every genocide, every internecine war, every act of terrorism which has taken place since 1945 and probably all the ones before it as well. Behind every grandstanding jihadist there is a bully with a grubby, shame-faced desire to exercise power over someone else, someone weaker. Behind the mad dictator there’s an impotent wife-beater, a little man who erects huge statues to himself because he can’t erect anything else. Behind the rhetoric of nationalism lies the fear of scarcity. Wars are not fought for high moral causes but for economic gain, for land, or oil, or water, for whatever is in short supply and someone else will pay top dollar for.
The human species has a big, sophisticated brain that gives it self-awareness, the capacity to comment on and explain its own actions, to tell itself stories. Most of these stories are romances in the traditional sense of the word. They involve dashing action heroes of impeccable courage and stoic heroines of equally impeccable beauty. What derring do makes it possible to create a universe in six days? Or just by talking it into existence? Through our stories, our words, we justify and glorify and mythologise ourselves.
We make ourselves up. We know we do this, and we have mixed feelings about it. Making things up can be either self-deceptive or, as with my example of The Zone of Interest, it can reveal rather than conceal. We fiction writers expend a lot of thought and energy on the concept of fictional truth, fictional authenticity, this trick of revealing the essence of something by veiling it, like Salome, in make believe. We are, of course, liars, magicians, prestidigitators. We put words in people’s mouths, we govern their actions as surely as Derren Brown does those of his volunteers. We give voice to the impossible, the improbable, the feared and devoutly wished-for, to tigers and freaks and meek governesses with steel spines concealed beneath their corsets.
What sort of responsibility does this ventriloquism give us? I almost followed this question up with a qualification. Of course, I was about to write, when I talk about the fiction writer’s responsibility, I’m only talking about ‘serious’ writers, like Amis. I quickly realised how patronising that sounds, and how plain wrong it is. Popular novelists from Dickens to Joanna Trollope have written books driven by the desire to expose and explore social injustices. Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels are not only gripping whodunits but offer serious social commentary on contemporary life in Sweden, particularly the plight of asylum seekers and economic migrants. Even Mills and Boon has stuck a perfectly pedicured toe in the murky waters of women’s liberation in recent years. Their heroines are all career girls now. Fictional voices, however apparently frivolous, are invested with power. Mills and Boon has a readership of over three million in the UK alone, a figure politicians looking for votes can only dream of.
As with everything else to do with the process of creating fiction, the question of responsibility can’t be answered without recourse to the reader. A story is not merely the product of the writer’s imagination, it is the result of a conversation between the writer’s imagination and that of each reader. There is, in fact, a whole Babel of voices at work in the construction of a fiction – the author’s, the characters’ and the readers’. And really, the key voices are the readers’ because each reader hears and responds to characters’ voices differently. The writer’s voice is only one among many. When the author creates his characters he puts certain words in their mouths, but he has no control over how readers hear and understand those words. Everyone, author and readers alike, invests something of themselves and their own experience in the text, so everyone interprets the text differently. Every story is a potential recreation of the Babel tower.
Yet chaos rarely ensues from reading fiction. Fights don’t break out among book groups (well, depending on the amount of wine that’s flowed during their meetings…), book shops and libraries tend to be quiet and courteous places, reading – and writing – are civilised, mild-mannered pursuits. Why is this? It’s certainly not because writing and reading don’t matter. Books can – and have – changed the world. Where would we be without the brave voices of writers such as Arthur Koestler, Nadine Gordimer or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name but three I can see whenever I glance up from my screen at my bookcases. Two of these went to prison for speaking out against injustice. Two ended up in exile. Their voices speak truth to power and are dangerous.
Perhaps the responsibilities of writer and readers are less those of conviction or evangelism and more, shall we say, contractual. All creators of a text agree on some common basis of understanding. Without this, language as we comprehend it could not exist. It would just be noise. Babel. When verbal argument breaks down, war ensues. Writers and readers understand the power of the voice, even when it is no more than a whisper from the wings. They treat it with care. For this, in a world in which voices are increasingly raised in thoughtless ideological extremism and rhetorical fury, in which words are coming to be used with less and less sense of their meaning, we should be grateful.
To end where I began, with my own culture’s foundation myths, God wasn’t in the fire or the earthquake but in the still, small voice.
Sarah Bower’s latest novel, Erosion, written under the penname S. A. Hemmings, is out now and was at least partly inspired by the iniquities of the juvenile detention system.