Monday, 24 June 2019

When truth matters - Jo Carroll

Do writers grow from societies? Or do they shape them? Going right back to Chaucer, writers notice and comment on the lives of those around them. Shakespeare, between the lines, tells us much about social mores in Elizabethan England; Dickens shines a brutal light on Victorian poverty.

It is now no secret that politicians tell lies, nor that newspapers nitpick at truths until their stories have only a flimsy relationship with any objective experience. The stories that News Programmes choose to tell succeed in silencing opposing points of view. Clips that float around the internet rarely explore an on-the-one-hand ... on-the-other construct.

We write in challenging times. I've never known British society more divided. A friend told me of a sister she can no longer speak to as they disagree so strongly over Brexit. The UN lambastes the levels of poverty; the British Government simply denies the impact of austerity. Some forecasts for the impact of climate change are apocalyptic; yet the President of the US insists it's fake news.

Do we, as writers, have a responsibility here?

It is possibly more straightforward for those who write non-fiction. It is surely impossible to write about anything based on lived experience without taking account of the political or social context.

It is more complex for those writing fiction. It is reasonable for readers, especially in times like these, to want nothing but entertainment from their reading. And maybe writers, too, find joy in escaping from everyday realities by creating fictional worlds in which good and bad are clearly defined, and where the loved and loving (and the truthful) always win out in the end.

Here I can only speak for myself. I watch the news with increasing disquiet, yet cannot turn it off. I am repelled by the lies, and the fantasy solutions. I cannot bear the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the ageism, the dismissal of the needs of those who are differently-abled.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to write a historical novel. Surely the current mayhem is irrelevant. And yet it's not. For what I find most depressing is how little has changed in the last hundred years or so. Those with money and power continue to ignore the needs and feelings of those without money and power. Poverty is relative: we rarely see children (in the UK at least) without shoes, but we know that some children go to school without breakfast. Where once the old and frail might pass away, now we shove them into corners and invest so little in their care it could be argued that we hope they will simply die from deprivation.

All of which makes me angry, and helpless. Yet a conviction that nothing will change is not a good enough reason for a writer to ignore it. At the moment my historical novel is possibly overflowing with angry women - I know I might need to tone that down. But neither will I shrink from writing about how I understood life a hundred years ago to be. That may say more about me than it does about writing. So be it.

I'd love to hear from those who are able to park the whole political shenanigans and write in a lovely, entertaining bubble.

(My novel The Planter's Daughter tells the story of a woman who left Ireland during the famine in the  mid nineteenth century and ended her days in New Zealand. At its core is a true story.)

4 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

I'd love to be able to oblige, Jo (by claiming I'm immune to it all and can escape into a bubble), but I can only half do so. By that, I mean I'm crushed by the helplessness I feel in the face of the many lunacies that are being perpetrated/felt/imposed/whatever-the-correct-verb-is, and I can't dismiss them from my mind, and yet losing myself in some writing project or other does enable me to exist for a while in a dimension free of them. The trouble is they're still there when I emerge. We really are living in awful times.

Susan Price said...

God, yes. Is Johnson really going to be our representative to the world? It's so insane, words fail.

Umberto Tosi said...

I couldn't concur more! Having written my own share of historical fiction with commensurate research, I've found it so true that, as you write: "...what I find most depressing is how little has changed in the last hundred years or so. Those with money and power continue to ignore the needs and feelings of those without money and power. ..." You could just as well say five hundred years - or more, going all the way back through the history of civilization. Human greed and chicanery still thrive. Institutions, societies and mobs still seem all too willing to embrace brutal, horrible ideas and call them righteous. But opposition forms much more quickly in the information age! As you also point ou, "poverty is relative."Globally, humankind as a whole is better off than was the accepted standard in previous centuries. Conflicts remain horrible, but not as widespread - for now. Those are not satisfactory answers, of course. As you so well point out, our calling as writers is clear. We must speak out and give voice to our values in all the creative ways at our disposal - trying our best to make things better always, even if it's inch by inch.

JO said...

Thank you all - it’s a relief to know it’s not just me that is troubled by it all.