The second of two posts reflecting on the role of the writer in today’s world, and why what we write matters—urgently.
The Role of the Writer, Part 2: Writing the Necessary
When I was a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada listserv, there was a regular debate about the topics allowable for discussion. Some writers felt that the listserv should only be concerned with “writing” matters—for example, copyright, freelance rates, information about publishers and agents, etc. Other writers argued that everything was of potential interest to writers, and that we shouldn’t shy away from issues that weren’t strictly literary.
I happen to believe that writers no longer have the luxury—if they ever did—of walling themselves off from the world. In fact most writers have no choice. If you live in Egypt or China or Colombia, where writers who fall afoul of the government are regularly imprisoned, you cannot help but be aware of political issues. Writers in many countries often find themselves having to write in disguised ways in order to address the issues where they live.
North American writers are, for the most part, relatively fortunate. Few of us go to prison for our writings. But the truth is that most current North American literary fiction has become too safe. It risks too little. The American blogger Brian A. Oard refers to our fiction as “suburban realism . . . narrow and domesticated . . .” The Canadian writer Mike Barnes calls it “duvet realism.”
Literary fiction today rarely deals with the “big issues,” as nineteeth-century fiction did. Which is odd, because we find ourselves facing unprecedented global crises, from intensifying climate change and massive species extinction to the corporate capture of governments and worldwide surveillance. “The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence,” says the Guardian columnist George Monbiot. “As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours . . .”
Surely it is writers, of all people, who should be addressing these issues in some way, or at the very least not ignoring them? This doesn’t mean writing didactic novels about what we ought to do. But it does mean recognizing where we are in history and what role writers might play in these troubling times.
“Some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency,” say the writers and editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic. “Anything written solely for tenure. Anything written solely for promotion. Any shamelessly solipsistic project. Anything, in short, that isn’t the most significant use of a writer’s life and talents. Otherwise, how could it ever be forgiven by the ones who follow us, who will expect us finally to have escaped the narrow self-interest of our economy and our age?”
Two years ago Moore and Slovic issued a “call to writers,” asking them to respond to the planetary emergency of climate change. “There is essential work to be done in our roles as academics and writers, empowered by creative imagination, moral clarity, and the strength of true witness,” Moore and Slovic wrote. “[Writers] must write as if the planet were dying.” They continue: “Surely in a world dangerously slipping away, we need courageously and honestly to ask again the questions every author asks: Who is my audience—now, today, in this world? What is my purpose?”
That’s the question I’d like to leave readers with. As a writer, who is my audience, and what is my purpose? What kind of writing is necessary at this point in history, and how might that affect what I write about? Where do my particular imaginative landscapes fit, and how might they contribute, as all imagination and storytelling once did, to help people make sense of, and respond to, their world?
What is the most significant use of your life and talents? Or, as the poet Mary Oliver puts it:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Being the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence at the library has been a joy and a privilege. Thank you to all those who shared their work and their thoughts with me, whether by email, in person, or at a workshop.
Happy writing to you all!