Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whose right to write?

Oh, I am all churned up again.

Reading group last night (report when I finish decorating that ruddy room!), and it was my turn to make suggestions for next time. One of the two books I suggested, and the one plumped for by the others was Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. Talking about the book to the others, and waving my signed copy, I remembered the Waterstone's Deansgate reading at which I got it signed, and the fact that someone in the audience asked Anne Michaels if she was Jewish. (The book deals with a Jewish theme.) Now I don't know if this guy was meaning to be aggressive, but he certainly came over as challenging, and Anne Michaels clearly felt wrong-footed if not threatened as she declined to reveal her cultural identity, saying that she didn't feel her own racial or cultural identity was relevant, that the book should stand up for itself. The guy persisted, saying he wanted to know because he was Jewish, and it was a pretty sticky moment before he finally gave up.

Me, I was hot and cold all over, just as I was again last night remembering it, because of course this issue - the idea which I'm sure the guy was pushing, that only certain people have the right to write about certain experiences - was the issue over which my own writing career stumbled.

As if fiction is merely testimony! (Yet there have been literary movements where this notion has been seriously held.) Fiction operates via imagination and empathy, and this is what makes it more potentially socially dynamic than is nowadays acknowledged. You can't change society without empathy, after all.

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