Most 'big' books will have a theme and that's what I mean by politics.
This is not to say that theme belongs to a party-driven agenda - a book should not be in my opinion a vehicle for an organized group. Party = partie, in French, parted or departed, divided, to one side. Taking a position which is aligned to any established group degrades the author and the reader. (I hate to see authors' politics trumpeted on social media, it puts me off reading their books. No one wants their nose pushed into the swill of the trough.) Readers are intelligent people who form their own opinions and many will have experiences and opinions quite different to yours and if you only wish to speak to those who agree with you, then you should stick to social media and keep hitting the unfriend button.
'Big' books fast-forward our collective thinking, usually by crushing or condemning a commonly accepted truth or way of life. They trample on convenient, fast-food commonplace ideas.
The first rank of these biggest and bravest books are pre-emptive. They are written to defy accepted, societally condoned and conditioned marginalisations - such as racism - (To Kill a Mockingbird ) or the treatment of mental illness (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest') or shame and PTSD among former soldiers (Slaughterhouse-5).
The second rank confirm what we no longer condone, and come after laws have changed, but are still an important examination of our human need to form groups which ostracise and alienate by race, creed, sexual orientation. They look more deeply into the experience of those marginalized, as does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie powerfully in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'.
I grant no standing at all to books which by attacking one side of a debate effect a reverse stereotyping, blandishing all people who disagree as stupid or wrong-headed, which include an overt agenda to entrench one side against another. A disappointing aspect of Ali Smith's book Autumn was the anti-Brexit agenda. It is ignoble to stereotype those who don't share our opinions; opinions are flotsam and jetsam, humanity is everything.
'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' Said E.M Forster and this piqued my interest so much that it set me off in the direction of writing a book about the role of the British in Nothern Ireland. So as not to posit one side as good versus one side as bad, I made sure to describe the humanity of both sides of that civil war, chapter by chapter, one chapter female and Catholic, the other male and Protestant. That was the structure.
Books that defy convention and change minds ask the reader to walk in the shoes of the 'type' of person for whom they might hold negative feelings and to become with them a 'person' rather than 'a sort' of person.
This possibility of change one by one with one person becoming another person from the inside out makes novels uniquely powerful.
The politics of a book in terms of its power to change minds and move humanity, one person at a time, should not be seen by the writer as 'pretentious' or worthy or preachy, not at all. It is intrinsically linked to the popular success of a book. We want to be better, we do, really we do. We long to be better.
Novels that do well, even those without apparently political aspirations, ask us to consider deeply, to internalize what it's like to be THIS person. From Elizabeth Bennet to Bridget Jones to Eleanor Oliphant, readers have been asked to consider what's it's like to be an intelligent woman seeking love in societies which do not value the character or individuality of a woman as being equal to her performance as a helpmeet or accessory to powerful men.
In a way, every novel is political, because you're asking the reader to be this type of person at the outset, then to enter into the mystery and become that person. So you will consider of course at the outset of your novel - whose story do I want to tell? Whose story am I able to truly tell? Whose story needs to be told? Who goes unheard?
Met honestly and humbly by the author from the first sentences in the form of a 'person', a real living human being telling their story, the reader will enter into a pact of becoming that person; a transubstantiation.
This is a huge privilege and opportunity for an author that must transcend the ambition and rigmarole of getting published and selling books. If ten people read your book, they have seen the world through different eyes for a while. Much of our reading enjoyment is an out of body experience, and whether the character is good or bad, we will feel the slings and arrows of their experience keenly.
When you consider the politics of your theme, you must do so nobly and honourably and not for a bag of sweets of temporary agreement on a passing fad. You must have something to say.
Ideally, you start with - this stinks*. Then you work hard for years to find a way to put that to the reader that is not a hand on the back of their neck. Humour, tenderness, complexity and ultimately humanity above all else is what you're after in terms of the telling of the tale. Even those who uphold that which stinks have to be reasonable, or comprehensible, they have hearts that beat and drink when thirsty.
My novel 'This Human Season' crystallized around single moment, when an English former soldier prison guard is standing in front of an Irish Catholic prisoner boy in Long Kesh, the same age as his son, and sees him as a son and murmurs that his actions against Sean and his 'type' are not personal. Sean challenges him on it, asking how it's not personal when there's him standing there, opposite him, two people.
That sentimental point was what kept me working at that novel, to show person after person in extremis, doing their best to honour those who had raised and loved them. In the novel I am presently writing, I am driven by the same desire.
I want you to look at the people you write off and despise and see how you could be them. I want you to walk in their shoes.
Novels work intimately, and humbly. They are more effective when they tell a good story and change minds in millions. Far more powerful than dinner party politics or Facebook posts are those quiet half hour bedtime reading transformations in which human beings become other people.
In ' Half Of A Yellow Sun' Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows us that it’s possible to combine the lessons of a bestseller adventure novel for children with literary fiction for adults and a political theme. From the outset, we are immersed in a relationship, taken immediately into a strange world, which we see through the eyes of a child.
Her prose is lucid and true, keen-eyed, keen-nosed. The key to her work is that people don’t deal with major themes or political issues, they only worry about what they want next.
The story begins with a relationship, between master and servant which is at its best partially enlightened. The boy finds himself in another world, dependent on goodwill of another, and experiences the newness of that world. This is a perfect 'way in' to seeing things the way Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie wants us to see them. As an immigrant to the USA from Nigeria, she wants us to see things afresh and feel new possibilities, subject to the experience of being an underclass or outsider.
The structure came first.
‘One thing I did right from the beginning was to have a structure where I start in the beginning, then move to the war when terrible things start to happen, and then to move back to the beginning. It’s important for me as well because I didn’t want to lose the humanity in my characters. I didn’t want to be immersed in this place where all I felt for them was pity or horror. It was important to go back and just remember when these people were ordinary and they didn’t have to deal with a bomber plane. All they had to deal with was “What do I have to eat?” or “Which party am I going to go to?” That sort of thing.’
Go patiently and kindly. Keep your characters wanting ordinary things, the way we ourselves go from day to day. Next, I will have a coffee...then I will text the person I care for and hope for a reply. Which of us cannot relate to these things? When we relate, we grow, we change, we are open to new possibilities. That is not preaching, that is magic and it is the only real magic we possess.
* Next week I am going to talk about 'Anger'.
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