Why isn’t fiction tackling relevant, contemporary themes?

Or where are all the poems about Iraq or Afghanistan? Or why aren’t novelists writing about the Eurozone crisis? Or why has there only been only play (so far) about last summer’s riots?

I’ve heard various variations on these themes frequently recently. The fact is, writers are tackling and writing about these themes and other contemporary issues but readers aren’t able to read them yet because:

  • there’s a necessary time lag between writing and publication
  • publishers and editors can’t predict the future
  • the best writing doesn’t occur in either during the event or in its immediate aftermath
  • fiction is not journalism.

Let’s look at each in turn:

Time Lag between Writing and Publication

It’s impossible to be a writer and critic simultaneously. It takes time to polish and hone writing to the best possible standard. There needs to be a separation between writing a poem and editing the poem (and don’t even think that a first draft might be good enough: it never is). Therefore rushing off a first draft to an editor or publisher is a good way of guaranteeing rejection. You wouldn’t dash out for a job interview in the clothes you wear to do DIY without researching the job you’re being interviewed for, so don’t be unprofessional in approaching editors.

Editors and publishers often feel instinctively when a submitted piece is right for publication, but still may like to take time to think it over and check they are making the right decision. Even if an editor or publisher does make an instant decision, they can’t make an instant publication.

Editors have to wait for the next available issue of a poetry magazine. Even a quarterly magazine still might involve a three month wait and that assumes your relevant, contemporary poem will fit with the next issue and not be held over until the issue afterwards.

It generally takes at least two years to publish a novel. Publishers schedule that far in advance so that they are not launching books within days of each other, that a marketing plan can be put in place, publicity and review copies are sent out in advance and that staff have a flow of work. Priority will go to authors who the publisher has previously worked with and who can produce books with a proven track record. A first time novelist will go to the back of the queue, even for a novel on a big contemporary theme.

Publishers and Editors can’t predict the future

No one likes to look stupid and where there is no predictable outcome, there is also a natural hesitancy about committing to publishing a book about a current event that might turn out to be mistaken about cause and/or effect.

The best writing doesn’t occur either during the event or in its immediate aftermath

Wilfred Owen did most of his writing at Craiglockhart. He may have jotted down notes or lines of poems whilst at war, but the actual writing was done when recuperating in a convalescence home where he had time, space to consider what he was writing and a trusted reader to spur him to write better. Keith Douglas edited his poems went back in England, not at El Alamein.

Writing that gets under the skin of an event, gets to know it, gets to explore it and gets to examine cause and effect, will not be written in the immediate aftermath. It takes time and emotional distance to produce a piece of good writing.

Fiction is not journalism

Writing that reports what happens, no matter how eloquently or beautifully, is not fiction. A poem that merely describes an event is not a poem but a description of an event. A story that records an event as it happened is not fiction but reportage.

Fiction is not just inventing characters or a narrator and putting them in the thick of a significant, newsworthy event. Fiction enables readers to empathise with characters, to explore and understand why events happened the way they did and allows readers to explore their own feeling about those events and further their understanding.

Research has shown that reading fiction can foster empathy, equipping the reader with skills to understand real people around them by relating to and understanding perspective of fictional characters. Studies have been made at Washington and Lee University into whether fiction can provide prosocial models and influence behaviour in the short term. Mere reporting of facts can’t do this.

People caught up in events don’t have the gift of hindsight or the ability to separate and analyse their emotional response. A writer may know that they will write about an event they are experiencing, but they won’t know how. It takes emotional distance and time to be able to think through and around an event and reactions to it.

There are poems about Iraq and Afghanistan, there are stories about the Eurozone crisis and stories about last summer’s riots, but it’s unlikely you’ll be reading them in the near future.

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How Real Life does Poetry have to be?

Last year a competition asked for poems in response to photos showing the immediate aftermath of a disaster and again after four years of re-building work.  One of the poets involved commented that they had hesitated before writing their poem because they hadn’t been there or known anyone directly involved.  They felt awkward and worried about the authenticity of their poem.  There have also been discussions at Magma Poetry about how poets can make it real despite not directly experiencing events and whether we should let our knowledge of writers’ biographies influence our reading of their poems.  Does it matter?

No one expects crime writers to have committed the crimes they are writing about.  Readers expect crime writers to have done their research and create empathetic characters so the readers can ‘experience’ the crime alongside the victims and try and figure out who the murderer was before the end of the book.  Generally novelists are not expected to write autobiography although there is an understanding that some events or characters that end up in novels may have roots in the writer’s life.

Poetry is also fiction.  So why should poetry have to be real?  Why does the question of “how do poets make an event they have not experienced authentic” even arise?

Most contemporary poetry is written in first person, whereas novels are generally written in third person.  There are exceptions, but most poems use an “I did/ felt/ saw/ dreamt/ experienced…” narrative and it is easy for readers to therefore assume that the poem’s “I” is the poet.  The assumption then becomes that the poet is writing directly from autobiography and poetry is no longer fiction.

This creates two problems.  Firstly it can create misunderstandings.  I know of someone who read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” as taking place in the aftermath of a suicide attempt because he knew the poet had attempted suicide.  What he didn’t know was that “Tulips” was written after a routine operation to remove an appendix, which puts the poem in a completely different light. 

Secondly it shifts the focus from the poem to the poet and encourages the view that poems about, say, the war in Iraq are only authentic if the poet has served a tour of duty.  Or that knowing a poet has served a tour of duty in Iraq makes that poet’s poem more authentic than a poem written by someone who’s never been to Iraq but done their research.  This takes us backward to the view that crime writers should have committed the crimes they write about, which has already been dismissed.  Surely the poem matters?

Poems need to be able to stand on their own merit.  It doesn’t matter whether the poet has direct or indirect experience of what they are writing poems about.  What matters is whether the poem is any good or not.  Good poems can come from indirect, researched experience and bad poems can come from direct experience and vice versa.  Incomplete research will show, but poets with a distance from the event they are writing about have the advantage of being able to put the event in context and focus on making the poem.  The key focus has to be on the poem, not the poet, doesn’t it?

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