This is something of a follow up to the first post in, for want of a better word, this series. That first post sparked some interesting feedback. Most of which in essence I agreed with, but as with everything there are shades. This post is about those shades as I see them. As with any post like this it should be borne in mine that this is an opinion piece. This is my opinion, it is not necessarily correct, nor do I discount the opinions expressed by others
The opinions I expressed in the first post can be boiled down to ‘Write what you want, about whom you want’. Which is to say that despite not having being a teenage girl with deep seated emotional issues, dealing with the tragic loss of both her parents in an inferno she narrowly escaped. I can write ‘her truth’ and in the same novel write about being a former child prodigy, with complex emotional issues, who blames himself for a lovers death, turns to heroine before ending up a homeless drifter dealing with his own sense of disconnection and grief… His truth is no more my truth than hers, but this doesn’t stop me writing it.
The question becomes, and the only question that actually matters, did I write it well?
I’m not a great fan of talking about characters in terms of ‘her/his truth’. Though it is a concept I understand, my problem with the concept is it is by nature restrictive. Which is to say that the concept states that I, a white upper working class British man in his early fifties, should not write about the experience of an African American soldier born in the early 1900’s in the southern states of the US, because I can not know, or speak for, that characters ‘truth…’
One of the reactions to the first of these posts was that it was put to me that you have to consider the difference between ‘speculative’ fiction and ‘literary fiction’. Which is to say that my ‘write want you want’ approach is all well and good in ‘speculative’ fiction but it becomes problematic when you consider such an approach in ‘literary’ fiction.
In essence I don’t entirely disagree with this. Alex Haley and only Alex Haley had the authority to write ‘Roots’. Roots is biographical, ardently research and carefully conceived. It is in fact a masterpiece only Alex Haley could have written, as it is the story of his family. It is undoubtedly therefore ‘his truth’. For all much of it is fiction, it is fiction weaved through fact. It is also undoubtedly Literature… I could site other examples, I have read plenty. I would never try to pass off my ‘speculations’ in fiction as a real person’s truth. I have on occasion however been accused of ‘literature’.
The problem here is however what exactly when it comes down to it do we mean by Literature? For me there are two definitions…
a) a novel with a central message written with authority to expound upon an idea while telling a story
b) a genre novel + time.
An example of ‘b’ would be Wuthering Heights, no one in the modern age would claim Wuthering Heights is not literature, but at the time it was written it was ‘edgy chick lit’ of the regency period. The novels that can be determined to be ‘a’ on the other hand well that’s a stranger mix, and harder to define, as any list of Booker prise nominees will show you…
Simply put, in my opinion, there isn’t really such thing as ‘Literature’ … Literature is just another genre, no more worthy than any other. Which makes drawing a line between ‘speculative’ and ‘literary’ fiction somewhat complex
The first example I gave of the teenage girl and the homeless former addict are the two main characters in my first novel ‘Cider Lane‘. Cider Lane is hard to define genre wise as it doesn’t really have one, but it has been described as Literature by some readers. It has strong themes involving isolation, self harm, love, hate, trust, lost, grief and the importance of tin openers. It is a dark savage sort of novel, it is very grim in places, brutal in others, and ‘I hope’ life affirming in others.
But is it literature? I couldn’t tell you. What i can tell you is I was careful to make those characters real and true to themselves, much of the work in writing that novel was on getting those characters right. If I hadn’t the novel would not work at all.
That second example ‘The experience of am African American man in the early 1900’s in the southern states of the US’ is at the core of the forth chapter in what I personally consider to be my best piece of work, Passing Place.
That forth chapter in Passing Place is called ‘The Ballard of Sonny Burbank’ and like many of the chapters in the novel it is a self contained story that relates to main novel told to the main character by someone else. In this case it is the story of Sonny Burbank, a African American born in South Carolina at the turn of century in 1900, related by him to Richard the piano player, in a Pan Dimensional Piano Bar and Grill.
Sonny tells his life story to Richard, over a couple of brandy’s, drank in the correct fashion, from his birth in South Carolina to the death cell he found himself in twenty two years later. A life which saw him raised by a single mother who died before he reached his majority. A life that took him to the trenches of world war one, to the doorsteps of the cotton club, to a stock yard in North Carolina where he discovered the truth about the father that ‘abandoned’ him and his mother and then through false accusation to a cell on death row. It is written around the central idea of the five stages of grief as Sonny comes to terms with his life and impending death, and a choice, a simple but complex choice about the last freedom he has left to him, thanks to a piece of french metal he has been sharpening on the wall…
This story is in isolation perhaps the most complex and involved pieces of fiction I have ever written, it is heart wrenching, dark, cynical in places and considered some of the worst facets of humanity into the bargain. It is as close to ‘a truth’ as I am capable of writing and has all the hall marks of literature, despite it being a chapter in a novel set in a Pan Dimensional Piano Bar and Grill…
It is true to say I am more proud of ‘The Ballard of Sonny Burbank’ than I am of just about anything else I have written. If I was asked to point anyone at one piece of my writing to showcase what I aim to achieve, and want to be, as a writer ‘The Ballard of Sonny Burbank’ is what I would point to. Forget everything else, forget the rest of Passing Place, forget all the Hannibal novels, the Maybe novels and all the short stories in all the Harvey. ‘Ballard’ is the heart of all I wish to be as a writer. It is the piece of writing I hope the rest live up to.
To return to my point, I am not African American, I wasn’t born in 1900, I didn’t serve in the trenches of WWI, I’ve never sat in a death cell and contemplated my existence…. Yet ‘The Ballard of Sonny Burbank’ is, I would argue, both ‘a truth’ and as close to literature as I have ever written.
The important point however is that it is also the product of exhaustive research, care, thought, several rewrites to avoid some predictable pitfalls. That chapter went through at least five heavy drafts before I considered it to be complete. It needed all that because I am not any of the things Sonny Burbank is. I am a white upper working class Yorkshireman in his early fifties. To write Sonny’s truth needed a lot of work, it was not easy, I ditched several things i the process to rid the story of a couple of stereotypes it did not need. I wanted it to be what it turned out to be, as good as I could get it.
Is it Literature? Well that is a definition for someone else to make because genre fiction and Literature are interchangeable in my opinion.
As I said, the question for me and the only question that actually matters is, did I write it well?
To sum up, ‘write what you want’ but if you are doing so, ‘make it a true, do your research and make it as well written as you can’ and then, in my opinion, you can’t go far wrong…
Also, avoid stereotypes always… Its lazy writing and there is no excuse for that.