My current novella is turning into “The Casual Vacancy”, or something like it. When I started it, I was going to write about someone who learns to think. Right now it feels more like it’s about “someone who learns to think cynical thoughts about other people”. Much like J.K. Rowling’s attempt at adult literature.
The social commentary novel is of course standard fare in Britain. I think it’s what we do best. It has been like that since Dickens and Thackeray. What is “Bleak House” and “Oliver Twist” if not highly political pamphleteering? We may not see them as such because what they are raging against is mostly gone now. The workhouse, the Victorians, the Kafkaesque Chancery courts, they’re history – and the books survive through some subversive sugar-coating where Oliver becomes a saccharine orphan-story about a long dead past: Vanity Fair is just quaint. Bleak House survives as an example of Dickens skill as a writer.
You might be fooled to think that this is the times past, but then think of the writers of these isles that have struck an international audience in the last few decades? They all create biting social commentary. Yes, Terry Pratchett is unabashedly a social commenter through the use of fantasy, sarcasm and parody. Even Harry Potter is, partly, about social commentary. Think about the image you have of the unimaginative, stifling, boring, rigid and self-righteous Dursleys. Aren’t they the same middle class that is portrayed in “A Casual Vacancy”? Minus the sex, sexual assaults, and the swearing?
This kind of book is our thing. The Yanks go for action and adventure and blowing things up, the British go for social analysis and critique. The Swedes go for personal desolation. While the Swedes do not write in English, enough of the stuff is imported now that it’s started to have an impact.
And so we come to my story, which could easily morph into an arrogant intellectual wank where I try to show how brilliant I am, and how in tune with society and the current trends I am. Ugh. Literature studies can so easily be corrupted into proofs of brilliance, rather than studies of books. I don’t want to become someone who writes to shine personally. Not primarily. I want to tell good stories, and I think I want to write stories about how I think the world works.
I think there’s a good soil for the social commentary story, given its very long history in this country – but you can cross a line between being a modern successor to people like Charles Dickens, and instead become someone like Salman Rushdie. Writing is art, and the art that does not reflect the world is so much of empty calories. It may be fulfilling for five minutes, or for a day after you close a book. I want to understand things so I can write books that are fulfilling three weeks after you finish reading.