The Bookseller – Comment – Fiction must face the world

Introducing The Novel Today (1977), Malcolm Bradbury considered a dance between fiction’s “propensity towards generic realism, interrelation with historical events and faithful documentation of the world” and – on the other hand – an emphasis on “formal experimentation, reflexive self-examination and skepticism about the very possibility of faithful documentation”. This polarity remains true, but there’s another more visceral two-step in publishing culture: between novels that engage with the world around us and those which run away from it. This has in fact been the case since the dawn of modern bookselling, with commercial focus on feel-good fiction especially when times are hard. And then a reaction against that.

It does seem to me that the job of the novelist is to contribute new knowledge about the world, through the unique form of literary investigation – unique because literature can hold complex, sometimes contradictory ideas in suspension.

As well as offering a satisfying story, it does seem to me that the job of the novelist is to contribute new knowledge about the world, through the unique form of literary investigation – unique because literature can hold complex, sometimes contradictory ideas in suspension, in the way of Keats’ notion of negative capability. Unique also because the act of writing fiction is, bringing different domains into collision with unpredictable formal results, more akin to revelation than methodology. Just like the reader, most authors don’t fully know what’s coming till we get there. There’s pleasure in that delay, as well as a chance of enlightenment.

yet a priori method remains important and again, this idea has been around a long time, complicating what constitutes fictional experimentalism. In 1880, Emile Zola wrote in his essay “The Experimental Novel” about how novelists must attempt a scientific investigation of the nature of contemporary life. Drawing on other disciplines, he (like George Eliot) radically changed what the novel can do, rescheduling aspects of the novelist’s responsibility from her to society. While personally I’ve always shuddered a bit at that word responsibility, being instinctively more drawn to an art-for-arts-sake approach, I’ve been lucky in recent years to have worked with scientists on research projects connecting writing to real- world projects.

I’ve long done “research”, for example interviewing for The Last King of Scotland an airport worker who kept his job during Amin’s regime and other dictatorships after. How did he survive 20-odd years of oppression? “I always wore simple clothes – black trousers and white shirts – and never chose a pretty girlfriend. Otherwise, soldiers would pick me. And when I saw them shifting towards me, I just kept my head down.” Or speaking to terrorism detectives for Zanzibarand weather forecasters for turbulence. In recent years though – working directly with social scientists looking into how lost tribal narratives might improve the livelihoods of fishermen on Lake Victoria, or physical scientists checking whether storied memories of previous eruptions affect the response time of communities in volcanological regions – the direct importance of the novel as a kind of experiment, in this practical way, has been brought home to me.

For example, in my most recent novel Freight Dogs, a description of the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano, in Congo in 2002, was directly influenced by that work with volcanologists. The basic impetus for the book also came from a broader quest to understand and promulgate new knowledge. Why was its subject, the two Congo wars of the late 90s and early 2000s, so little known? Together they remain the deadliest global conflict since the Second World War, with a death toll from fighting and other causes of an estimated 5.4 million.

The result in publishing? A few brilliant non-fiction books, including Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb (HarperCollins), Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns (PublicAffairs) and Gérard Prunier’s From Genocide to Continental War (Hurst/OUP), plus one, largely overlooked novel, The Rebel’s Hour by Lieve Joris (Atlantic).

Part of the reason for this lack of attention is, alas, Black lives not mattering. Another factor is writers from the global south not having access to publishing institutions. That has at last begun to be addressed through the work of figures such as Sharmaine Lovegrove, Bernardine Evaristo, Vimbai Shire and many others in the publishing community – including The Bookseller‘s own commitment in special issues.

Yet there’s still masses of work to be done on acquisitions that will bring knowledge of the global south to a reading public. Particularly acquisitions from Africa. While a charity I work for, the Miles Morland Foundation (MMF), whose aim is to foster African writing, has had some notable successes for its scholarship-funded books, including Akwaeke Emezi (New York Times best-seller The Death of Vivek Oji), Karen Jennings (Booker-longlisted An Island) and work by Windham-Campbell prizewinner Siphiwe Ndlovu, the overall impression is that African writers are still not getting access to publication.

I’ve seen this myself mentoring scores of writers, shortlisted for MMF awards, at workshops on Bulago Island, Uganda, and also Zanzibar. Their new novels and the knowledge they carry are there, waiting, and so are the new readerships – if access and distribution channels could ever be sorted out. The streamers, Netflix and others, know this already to be a growth area and are working on it, setting up production hubs in African capitals. UK publishing needs to get out there and get involved, landing new talent and new readerships.

But there’s no point at all in saying this as dour injunction. Like reading, it’s above all a matter of pleasure. Will you join the dance or won’t you?

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