Novelists have responsibility as well as power
07 March 2008
We live in a golden age of bullying. Hardly a day goes by without some example of playground mobbing being enacted in politics (a minister or party leader on the ropes), television (the latest reality-show villain) or the press (some “troubled” celebrity being niggled and pushed to the brink). It is sometimes easy to forget that the aggressors are not always in a gang. They can be individuals, talented, with a golden reputation, even decorated by the state.
On Tuesday, readers of this newspaper were afforded a glimpse of how hurtful this can be for the victim by Yasmin Kureishi, sister of the more famous Hanif, whose latest novel is published this week. Her brother had made something of a habit of mercilessly exploiting in his fiction those who had been closest to him, Ms Kureishi argued. Their father, an ex-girlfriend, an ex-wife and she herself had been served up unkindly and in light disguise, arguably for the benefit of his novels, unarguably to the distress of some of those involved. “My life was out there being assassinated in the cause of ‘art’,” she wrote. “It was like he’d swallowed some of my life, then spat it back out.”
In a sense, this is stale news. If it is wrong to use lightly mediated, intimate experience in a novel, then Hanif Kureishi is a well-known serial offender. Certainly, he seems to have gone out of his way to kick out at those who dare to criticise him. Referring sneeringly to his sister as “an aspiring writer”, he told an interviewer: “You can always rely on her for a letter to a newspaper. That’s the extent of her writing ability.” That is what I call bullying.
The spat between the Kureishis makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. Contributing recently to Radio 4’s A Good Read, the programme in which guests recommend and discuss one of their favourite books, I had chosen Kureishi’s 1998 novel Intimacy, an astonishing, brutally clear-eyed account of the end of a marriage. The conversation in the studio concentrated correctly on the book, rather than the row about Kureishi’s own marriage that had surrounded it, but I knew my position – at least I thought I did.
Fiction, as John Updike has written, is a dirty business. “Discretion and good taste play a small part in it… Parents, wives, children – the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.” Writers like to agree with this line, believing themselves to be the tellers of truth, standing as firmly against the pressures of domestic sensitivity as they do against fashion or political correctness. What is the point of telling a story, they ask, if the mess and the agony are fastidiously left aside to avoid a few tears? It was, I believed, for Kureishi’s near and dear to deal with the life stuff. My only concern as a reader was what was happening on the page.
Suddenly, reading Yasmin Kureishi, I saw what a smug and partial view that is. Reading a novel, after all, is never a pure experience, untouched by the circumstances which surrounded the writing of it. If Vladimir Nabokov had been a paedophile, who could seriously have enjoyed Lolita? Had The Silence Of The Lambs been the work of a genuine psycho, it would impossible to read. At the moment in 2004 when the acclaimed children’s author William Mayne was imprisoned for offences against children, nothing in his considerable literary reputation could save his books. The life had, for the foreseeable future at least, poisoned the work.
It would absurd to compare the kinds of everyday misery and betrayal which Kureishi is so brilliant at portraying to real crime. The whole point of Intimacy, for example, is to explore the loneliness of a marriage that has gone wrong. On the other hand, the question Ms Kureishi raises is an important one, concerning not taste but power. There is the greyest of lines between a writer working or reworking experience into his fiction and one using his his work, as she puts it, “to settle scores or rewrite history”.
Novelists like to see themselves as brave loners telling their particular truth in age of generalisation and cliché but today they can also be part of the celebrity circuit, propelled by powerful publicity machines. Someone like Hanif Kureishi has, at the moment when his novels get read, some powerful weaponry at his disposal to which those about whom he is said to have written have no reply.
In the face of that authorial might, Yasmin Kureishi’s protest may look like a pea-shooter against a charging rhinoceros but, however justified or not the hurt, she has made a telling point. Fiction is not about the personal revenge of the writer on the non-writer, and those who use it in that way are simply abusing their power and position of privilege.