If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.


If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

The Value of Fiction

Ian McEwan wrote a lengthy piece in yesterday’s Grauniad entitled, ‘When Faith in Fiction Falters – and how it is restored’.  Reading it reminds me why I am beyond glad that my academic years were spent in Veterinary science, not English literature, or, heaven forfend, in a Creative Writing course where they (I assume?) teach perfectly sane men and women that the following constitutes reasonable thought:

Like a late Victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse. I find myself asking: am I really a believer? And then: was I ever? First to go are the disjointed, upended narratives of experimental fiction. Ach well … Next, the virgin birth miracle of magical realism. But I was always low church on that one. It’s when the icy waters of scepticism start to rise round the skirts of realism herself that I know my long night has begun. All meaning has drained from the enterprise. Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief. What imaginary Henry said or did to non-existent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to the age – I don’t believe a word, not the rusty device of pretending the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending.

Well, quite.  Perhaps if one were to read a real book instead of some dryly self-satisfied Tome about Henry and Sue (not that we in this blog have anything against Henries and Sues, you understand), one might not find oneself in quite such a pickle.  The rant goes on to ask,

This is when I think I will go to my grave and not read Anna Karenina a fifth time, or Madame Bovary a fourth. I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rise and fall, the adepts of the English civil war. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph? Will a novelist please tell me why the Industrial Revolution began, or how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved or what Salieri thought of the young Schubert in his choir. If I cared just a little about Henry’s gripes, I could read a John Berryman ‘Dream Song’ in less than four minutes. And with the 15 hours saved, linger over some case law (real events!), as good a primer as any on the strangeness and savagery of the human heart.

Ye gods and little fishes.  I thought people stopped writing this kind of drivel when they passed their English A level, but clearly not.   Perhaps, if one were to veer beyond the ‘up-its-own-arse’ section of Waterstone’s and into the ‘general fiction’, one might be intrigued by the wealth of amazing fiction that, while it might not tell much about the Higgs boson or the musings of Salieri, would nevertheless intrigue and inform – and entertain, which was, I always thought, what fiction was for.  I just finished reading Robin Hobbs’ ‘Soldier Son Trilogy’ which I think I can safely say will never pass Mr McEwan’s eyeballs and thoroughly enjoyed the allegory, the twisting of Fantasy conventions, and the richly vibrant detail.  Not a Higgs boson in sight, though, so that’s no good.

I read, too, the latest by Stuart Neville – RATLINES – which delves into Ireland in the wake of the second World War, or The Emergency as it was known over there when the enemy of my enemy nearly became my friend and various Nazis hung out in the Republic spreading their largesse in the form of stolen gold. It’s a heady, exhilarating thriller and I learned more about late 40s Ireland than I can imagine ever learning from a history text.  But that’s not why I bought it – I bought it for the escapism, for the luscious, living prose, for the characters who lived on in my dreams after I’d finished it, and for the neat adrenaline shot into my veins at pleasingly unreliable intervals.

And for the record, I’ve never read Anna Karenina or Madam Bovary and have absolutely no intention of doing so, however long I live.

rant over.



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