Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Tales Told by Idiots


In an earlier article on viewpoint for this magazine, I wrote about how characters compete for the right to tell their story. The writer’s role is to arbitrate between these competing claims, which is an exhilarating privilege. In her sober moments, however, the writer must also remember that what she does, when she selects the viewpoints she will use, is censor the voices she rejects. Well, you may retort, it’s a story, makebelieve, what does it matter?

Censorship always matters. We who are fortunate enough to live in liberal(-ish) democracies shout long and loud about the importance of a free press. Then there’s the Web, which often seems to me like the Wild West – lawless, unpredictable, raw-edged yet faintly glamorous. On the Web, you can say anything, and people do. On the Web, people bully, tease, declare their love for one another, send each other poems, threats, ridiculous photos of their cats, their lunch, their private bits, a ritual beheading. Some of this is wonderful, some of it appalling, some daft, some insignificant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is, the Web is uncensored. It is the quintessential site of contemporary freedom of expression and long may it remain so.

Our fellow writers, under less liberal regimes, are imprisoned and sometimes die because of what they write. Let us, with the recent atrocities in Paris in our minds, pause to remember the journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Let us give thanks for Niloy Neel, Ananta Bijoy Das, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, all barbarously murdered in Bangladesh for their blogs advocating a secular lifestyle and government. From Socrates to Neruda to Ken Saro Wiwa, let’s hear it for writers who have lost life or liberty for speaking truth to power.

And yet. As writers, do we not self-censor all the time and call it editing? As fiction writers, one of the key decisions we make when planning a new work is whose story it is. In whose voice will we bring it to the reader? Whom will the reader be made to believe? We have no obligation, as non-fiction writers do, to stick to the facts or to strive for a fair and balanced analysis. Nobody expects objectivity from a storyteller. A yarnspinner. This frees us from some responsibilities, but it imposes others because the novelist, liberated from the constraints of objective truth-telling (if such a thing is even possible), owes a debt to another kind of truth, deeper and much less easily defined. The novelist must strive for emotional truth, for what goes to the heart, sometimes by way of the brain but not always.

We do not, however, do we, sit at our desks in a state of permanently heightened sensitivity, feeling as if someone just removed our epidermis with a pan scourer? (Well, not every day…) We aim to achieve this emotional truth through the judicious use of certain tricks. We build the road to the heart with quite ordinary paving slabs, just as a great painting begins with the stretching of a canvas or violin with the felling of a tree. Fiction is sleight of hand, it’s smoke and mirrors; we lie our way to the truth.

Conventional wisdom has it that the bedrock of a good story is strong characterisation. This is undoubtedly true, but major determinants of character are voice and viewpoint. At the most basic level, a character who has no point of view cannot be as thoroughly developed as one who has. The decision as to who will be privileged with a viewpoint and who won’t is the first stage in our self-censorship, so what a responsibility it carries. To whom will you give a voice? Who will be heard?

Let’s take a look at Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Forgive me; this is a well-travelled comparison (although I recently had the experience of asking a group of students how Jane Eyre ended. A long silence was followed by the remark, ‘Is that the one with Mr. Darcy in it?’). But bear with me. We know how Rhys took a minor, literally voiceless, character from Jane Eyre, voiceless because she is locked away, kept out of society, denied any possibility of a voice, denied even her identity, and transformed her into the wayward, wonderful heroine of her own novel, brimming with erotic and magical power. This metamorphosis of wretched Bertha Rochester into Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who is not so much mad as manipulated by those who have power over her, cut off from her roots and her sexuality, is one of the best known and most analysed of literary sleights of hand, adopted by feminists and postcolonialists alike as a cultural signifier of the world they see and the world they would make.

The pivotal figure here, however, the connecting point between the two novels is not really Antoinette/Bertha, but Rochester. What drives both narratives is the relationship between this man and his two wives. Rhys gives Rochester a voice. In her novel he is a cold, repressed man, a cynic without a romantic bone in his body who marries solely to dig himself out of a financial hole. For him, his marriage to Antoinette is all to do with the exercise of power, a metaphor for colonial domination, which was often cast by the Victorians (and still is, when the Queen talks about the Commonwealth ‘family’) as an extension of the domestic ideal.

So how did this grim scion of the Victorian establishment become Bronte’s romantic hero? (And yes, I do know Bronte’s Rochester preceded Rhys’ but let us imagine, for the purposes of this argument, that the chronology of Rochester’s life is mirrored by that of the novels.) The answer to this question is surely that Rochester, in Jane Eyre, has no voice. We know him only through the eyes of Jane, who loves him and, while she is far from unaware of his faults, she loves him as he is and has no desire to change him. Loving him is a challenge she willingly undertakes. He is presented to us through the prism of her love, so we are bound, in the end, to see his best side. I wonder what sort of book Jane Eyre would have turned out to be if it had included a narrative in Rochester’s voice?

This may seem like idle speculation, but it articulates a question which concerns the novelist every time she embarks on a new book. Whose story is it, and how is it to be told? As fiction writers, we have a particular privilege. We can give voice to heroes and heroines, to Superman or Florence Nightingale or Sidney Carton, but why? What is interesting about good deeds and noble sentiments? How can we readers and writers, mere mortals all of us, relate to heroes and heroines? If we go back to the foundations of the western literary tradition, what’s interesting about Achilles is his heel. It’s his weakness that compels him to decide between unremarkable immortality and the life of a comet, brief and brilliant, that fascinates. If we race forward a few thousand years, we find Milton is ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ (William Blake) In a narrative poem about the losing and regaining of Paradise, Satan is the principal viewpoint character. We see Eden through his eyes because he has lost it. Who better, therefore, to demonstrate to the reader the cost of falling out with God?

Following Milton’s example, could it be the case that the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility is to give voice to the villains? Where else does the power reside to allow dictators, mass murderers, psychopaths and child abusers to explain themselves? Speaking personally, this is what interests me most. I have taken the Norman side in a novel about the Conquest, made a romantic hero of Cesare Borgia, followed the sad career of a child murderer through extortion and rape and the descent of a nice middle class girl into contract killing. One of the two main viewpoint characters in my new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is a terrorist. In a recent interview, the novelist Guy Saville told me that in order to avoid his characters slipping into caricature he tries to imagine his villains as the heroes of another story and vice versa. Everybody is the heroine of her own story, everyone has a rationale, even some kind of moral purpose, for what they do.

Surely the novelist’s biggest adventure is to find his way inside the mind of evil and show that it, too, is just part of being human. The heart is not something pink and glittery on a greetings card, it isn’t an emoji or a scarlet blob on a teeshirt, it’s a muscle, pumping blindly away under instructions from elsewhere. It doesn’t even look like a heart. The ancient Greeks thought the liver was the seat of the emotions; Hannibal Lecter may have thought likewise. But perhaps the emotions reside in viewpoint, in memory and imagination. One man’s soldier is another man’s murderer. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for terrorism. Hitler has recently become the narrative voice of a comic novel (Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes). Superman is boring; Sidney Carton was a romantic fool, Florence Nightingale a neurotic martinet. The novelist notches her arrow to her bowstring and fires it right into Achilles’ heel, and his dying cry is his true voice.

Sarah Bower tried archery once. She shot herself in the foot.


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