Monday, 6 April 2015

The Joys of Being a Serious Writer, Susan Sontag, and Me

My Easter week-end was made joyful by sitting in my sunny back yard reading a long article by Maria Popova about the writings of Susan Sontag.  In this article Popova distils for us the essence of Sontag’s wisdom about the inner world of the serious writer and the outer world of the interested reader.

I suppose this holiday activity of mine makes me look what I am – a rather serious
person. I was serious as a child, serious as a teenager, a serious young and middle aged writer. And I continue to be serious.

This seriousness can be a guilty secret, to be disguised at any age. My love for ideas and cultural history was not cool in my youth; it was not cool in my middle years.  But now as I get older I have at last come out as ‘serious’ and am not dismayed when some  people label my love for ideas, culture and history as eccentric. This is very useful nowadays when being\serious and committed writer who values the stories over profit can makes one seem odd to some people.

In the contemporary world a peculiarly evolving literary snobbery has carved our story-world into a blunt-edged hierarchy which has spawned iron-clad genres to feed a market which takes an essentially patronising view of readers, underestimating the breadth of their world view and the subtlety of their understanding.

As I keep saying, I am a serious writer. I take the world around me seriously. I take my readers seriously - not least because through the years they have been loyal and have understood that my narrative fiction and my story-telling, while it contains its own joy and humour, has cultural meaning beyond the hearth, the house, the street, the town, the city and out into to the world beyond. 

So, when the location of my storytelling has moved out from my home region to as far afield at France, America, Singapore and Germany, my readers have stayed with me and enjoyed the stories. Perhaps they recognised my voice as a storyteller who knows her world and tells some truth about people relevant on their twentieth and twenty-first century world.

So, you will see how much, being a serious storyteller, I relished my afternoon in the sun in the company of Maria Popover and Susan Sontag.

First  I was pleased to read that Susan Sontag warns us writers to be serious, and never to be cynical.

Although I make no claims to be a great writer, I hope I am a good writer. So I warm to and identify with Sontag’s description of a great writer. ‘A great writer of fiction both creates – through the acts of the imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms – a new world that is unique, individual and responds to the world but is unknown to still more people [and shares it with] still more people, locked in their worlds: call that history or society or what you will.’

I love the way Sontag elevates story-telling to its proper high place in all cultures,  asserting that storytelling is literature’s great duty. ‘Storytelling, as well as being engaging and entertaining, transforms information into wisdom.’ The primary task of writing, she says, is to go on writing well – ‘neither burn out nor sell out.’
She is concerned that … everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom.

To write – and to read – is to know something. What a pleasure it is, she says, to read a writer who knows a great deal (not a common experience these days). A great writer of fiction, she says, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot but evoke better standards of justice and truthfulness.

So I have no need to apologise for knowing a lot about a lot.

Storytelling, as practiced by a novelist, has an ethical component. ‘Serious fiction writers think about moral problems in practical terms. They narrate, they stimulate the imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and therefore improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.’

The act of reading is a close, intense and rewarding experience. The nature of moral judgement essentially depends on the capacity for paying attention on the part of both the writer and the reader.

She goes on: ‘A novelist […] is someone who takes us on a journey through space and time.’ I like this. I myself recently wrote in my newsletter The Writing Process that the writer is the pathfinder through the inspirations, information, events, characterisations and prose that form the bulk of a first major draft.

Quite coincidentally The Pathfinder is the title of my next novel, which will be out towards the end of the year.

So, all in all, my afternoon in the sun has reassured me that it is no bad thing to be a serious person and a serious writer.

 I am in the best of company.


Read Maria Popova’s whole article

Get Susan Sontag’s Essays and Speeches

Read my newsletter: The Writing Process.

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