Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Can A Writer Also Be An Activist?
I salute the authors and publishing professionals who responded to the Grenfell Tower disaster by setting up an online auction which raised three and a half times its £50,000 target. An impressive, heartfelt humanitarian response. Yet not a political one. Indeed the victims have said that funds are not the issue, instead demanding answers as to the causes of the tragedy and lobbying Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry for the widest terms of reference possible. Society-wide terms so that they can determine their place and value in a society where the Grenfell fire can rage in so devastating a manner.
The word author is hard to yoke to the word activism. Writing is a sedentary occupation, save for the odd writer like Hemingway standing up to write in a physicality vaguely suggestive of a manual trade. Potters are also sedentary artists, but in addition to their hands, one of their feet is working to rotate the wheel. Writing retreats are very popular with authors, the opportunity to get away from the distractions of the everyday world in order to pen your words within the cocoon of Nature, Wordsworthian or not. I can’t see how this would foster the atmosphere of a gritty urban thriller, but then I don’t write them.
Musicians don’t seem to be so hamstrung from activism. After all they are most active in their stage performance, they are bound by distinct rhythms (unlike the rhythms silently imagined by the author sat at their desk) and slogans can be handily and catchily bound up in simple chants drawing on popular songs. Jeremy Corbyn gets a rousing reception at Glastonbury, while in London’s inner boroughs, Grime artists will tell you it was them what mobilised the youth vote for their main man MC Jezza. However, the audience for books is a discrete one, since reading is undertaken alone and rarely does an author have a stage bringing together the numbers to convene the significant assemblage of a band in concert or at a festival.
Authors don’t have to be excluded from being viewed as activists. In France, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were at the head of any 1960s political demonstration going. Novelist André Malraux had a stint as the Minister of Cultural Affairs. But Britain lacks for much of a recent history of activist authors. Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser were notable exceptions, but part of their activism occurred through high end dinner parties. JK Rowling publicly expresses her political views through social media, but was recently rounded on by fellow author Joanna Trollope for such action representing a mere indulgence of ego. Or worse, that exploiting her popularity to leverage support for a cause, somehow strikes at the gravitas of serious wordsmithery.
It’s not hard to write a political novel. But it’s hard getting the timing right for its relevance, seeing that a week is a long time in politics and issues perpetually change and move on. So if you wanted to sit down and write a book provoked by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it would be ready to hit the bookshops probably only marginally before any official government inquiry had reached its conclusions; yes that long! Firstly it takes at least a year for an author to write a complete work from scratch and that’s assuming they either have it plotted out, or a pretty good idea of it if they tend to eschew planning. Then if they have a deal with one of the big publishing houses, their work will probably be slated for release two years hence, so far in advance are publication schedules. A seemly group of pop stars can gather in a recording studio and record a song to highlight a cause in a single working day, digitised and downloadable within the same week. Of course an author can take to Kindle and swiftly publish a single short story, or publish it on their own website, but it’s just not going to have the same impact. And save us from another hastily put together rapid response anthology of stories, that bear no relationship to one another, let alone to the cause espoused in the introduction.
But then timing is always an issue in any art form that seeks to engage with the world. JG Ballard wrote three books between 1973-75 inspired by the very urban landscape and architecture of that part of North Kensington where Grenfell Tower is situated. “Crash”, “High Rise” and “Concrete Island” are seeped in the trunk road The Westway, around which North Kensington’s tower blocks stand upright and austere. Each book involves a political and psychological analysis pertinent to the issues of the area, that were finally laid bare by the flames that engulfed Grenfell Tower. Yet Ballard’s vision predated even the hand wringing and finger pointing back to the politics of the 1980s by a full decade. Yet Ballard was not overtly an activist. And that is the point of the political novelist, the activist writer. You have to be in it for the long haul. You can’t simply dip in and out when a single issue gets your political gander up and provokes you into a literary (or fundraising) response. You’re never writing about your themes completely from scratch, but as part of your continuum of subjects. Ballard's artistic and philosophical influence continues through the writers and film-makers who channel his ideas today.
The true activist author keeps chipping away with his or her critical vision, with their constant commitment to looking beneath the surface of society and one day maybe, their ideas come into fashion for their ‘timely’ resonance. An activist author can address rallies, go on “Newsnight" to debate with an MP, take to Twitter, or pen an opinion piece for a broadsheet. But ultimately, their activism is really their sustained body of work in the political sphere, using fiction to speak to truth.
For my piece on just how we end up at a Grenfell Tower disaster, read here.