Oops! There’s nothing subjective about the fact that I haven’t posted for a while. What can I say? Sometimes life intervenes.
But the subjectivity involved in defining literature as good/worthy has arisen as a hot topic time and again in recent months—in writing workshops, in my writing life, and in private and public conversations and published discussions.
The ABC’s screening of The Slap has certainly helped to focus the debate, polarising opinion not only about ethical issues, child-rearing strategies and social norms but also, I’ve noticed, about what constitutes good fiction. Tsiolkas has the sales of his novel and the ratings of the TV series to show that he’s been successful in various measurable ways, no doubt about that.
Yet when I waded through the 483 pages of that novel, I had to force my way through a mounting internal resistance not so much to the subject matter but to the relentlessly negative portrayal of middle class Australians and their way of life. Perhaps my memory is blurred, but I don’t recall any rays of light in that narrative; not one brilliantly delightful individual or scene. Doubting my memory, I tried watching a couple of episodes of the televised version, only to switch off in despair. Brilliant? In many ways, yes. A true and balanced reflection of the complexities of life in suburban Australia? I sincerely hope not.
My pondering was reignited this week when I read an essay in Newswrite, the magazine of the NSW Writers Centre, dealing with a core aspect of this question: do characters in fiction have to be likeable for the work to be liked, accepted for publication, and well regarded? I respect Charlotte Wood, the author of this piece, as a hard-working, successful Australian novelist and have no doubt of her sincerity and depth of thinking. Wood makes the case that authors who offer unlikeable central characters (for example Shriver in We Need to Talk about Kevin; Tsiolkas in The Slap; Franzen in Freedom) are affording us the opportunity to ‘bring into the light and examine the shameful, repellent parts of ourselves’; to ‘bring to the surface these uglinesses in [ourselves], and see them more clearly’.
But I felt a surge of anger at her dismissal of those who disagree with her thesis; a mounting uneasiness at her labelling of those readers and editors who hold views different to her own as being lazy, unsophisticated, immature or simply missing the point.
Ultimately, though, I’m grateful to Wood, because her boldness in stating her views has helped me crystallise at last my own less than positive response to works such as those of Shriver, Tsiolkas and Franzen.
It’s not the unlikeability of their characters that repels me, nor the dark or murky aspects of human nature revealed in their plot lines. It’s the relentless immersion in darkness and mundanity, the lack of a perspective that could in any way be described as a balanced reflection of the complexity of human society and culture.
Do I, then, read simply to feel good? Definitely not. A quick journey around my bookshelves reveals favourites by authors such as Zusak and Funder (the horrors of Nazi Germany), Winton and Forster (dysfunctional individuals and relationships), Sebold (child abuse, murder, rape), Garner (troubled relationships, illness, death), Lamb and Grenville (massacre, trauma), Burke (blood, guts, corruption and addictions)—the list could be much longer, but I think I’ve made my point.
As a lifelong avid reader, I have never shied away from fiction that shines light onto darkness. Like Wood, I understand its value and the benefits to me personally and to society. But the novels I choose to read and applaud also respect the lightness in human nature and explore the subtleties of light and shade across a broad spectrum. When they pan across an emotional, cultural or social landscape, they notice everything that’s there—the light, love, humour and silliness as well as the darkness, depravity, death and dysfunction—even if they focus more on one or the other.
The point I’m making is that there’s room for a broad range of views on what constitutes good literature; that deciding not to read relentlessly dark works is a valid, informed, mature choice for many readers, and for many editors and agents. Reading, like writing, is a subjective pursuit.
Which leads me to reflect on how subjectivity informs our writing. How can it not? When we write, we are alone with our characters and their worlds. Yet many respected writing teachers and mentors cannot emphasis too strongly the importance of craft—plotting, planning, mapping out of narrative arcs and character traits—while others, equally respected, encourage interiority, writing from ‘the dream’, allowing one’s unconscious to express itself in surprising and often intriguing narrative flow. Many advocate an intelligent mix of both approaches.
It’s heartening to realise that even in these times of radical transition for books and publishing, there are so many of us who care enough about good writing that we are able to keep a debate such as this alive. When passions flare, whether in support or criticism of considered writing, we can feel confident that there is a solid future for books and writing and for literary debate.
As a reader and as an editor, I choose to seek out writing that strives for balance; that is not afraid to burrow courageously into the darkest places, yet also delights in dancing gloriously naked under the brightest of lights, revealing in creative ways the worst and the best of the complexities of human nature. By all means give me blood, guts, death, grief, violence and depravity—but if you do, please dish it up with servings of love, beauty, lyricism, hilarity, subtlety and generosity. Then I’ll trust your integrity as a reflector of life and I’ll want to read your work.