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But from 1954 on:

‘The spate of novels with an African setting continues. Frontiers of War is competently told, with a considerable vigour of insight into the more melodramatic sexual relationships. But there is surely very little new to be said about the black-white conflict. The area of colour-bar hatreds and cruelties has become the best documented in our fiction. The most interesting question raised by this new report from the racial frontiers is: why, when the oppressions and tensions of white-settled Africa have existed more or less in their present form for decades, is it only in the late forties and fifties that they exploded into artistic form? If we knew the answer we would understand more of the relations between society and the talent it creates, between art and the tensions that feed it. Anna Wulf’s novel has been sprung by little more than a warm-hearted indignation against injustice: good, but no longer enough …’

During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read — let’s say — Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, that the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know — Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on. One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel — the quality of philosophy. I find that I read with the same kind of curiosity most novels, and a book of reportage. Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone about groups in other countries. It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is a means towards it. Inside this country, Britain, the middle-class have no knowledge of the lives of the working-people, and vice-versa; and reports and articles and novels are sold across the frontiers, are read as if savage tribes were being investigated. Those fishermen in Scotland were a different species from the coalminers I stayed with in Yorkshire; and both come from a different world than the housing estate outside London.

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  1. Naomi Alderman November 9th, 2008 at 12:52 am

    “the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know”

    This is so true, and I think has just got more true since Lessing wrote. It goes along with another development in the world of fiction, that now people are far more interested in whether a novel is ‘autobiographical’, and are rather dismissive of novels that don’t have this sort of (quasi) authenticity.

    I wonder if the reason Lessing suggests for this is the real one. Is society more fragmented now than it used to be? My impression is that society was always fragmented but that the fragmentation wasn’t acknowledged. Instead of Britain saying “we are a society made up of different regions, of different classes, of different religious denominations”, there was ‘received pronunciation’ and ‘this is the BBC from London’.

    The acknowledgement of difference must surely be a good thing? But I can see that the apparent fragmentation of society has a strange effect on novels. If you write about your community, are you writing *for* the members of that community or *about* them? If the former, how will you find a wide readership? If the latter, you perhaps inevitably begin to become one of these journalism-novels Lessing is talking about. I don’t think there are easy answers.

  2. Naomi Alderman November 9th, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Actually (and now I’m having a conversation with *myself*, which may not be the object of the exercise) I’m wondering if it’s right at all to say that the novel has a “function”. It is interesting that people are reading novels more now to find out about society. But does that make them less authentic than novels written to make a philosophical statement about life? Why do people write novels anyway? Why do people read them? You’d think, as a novelist, I’d know the answer to this already.

    1. Harriet Rubin November 13th, 2008 at 11:48 pm

      This statement stopped me, too: that the novel is the outpost of journalism. It seems that everything is the outpost now of journalism. People increasingly sound as if they had media training, as if everyone was an aspiring pundit or reporter. But there is something admirable in the kind of writing Lessing has achieved: she is telling a story but trying not to shape a story. Lessing seems to be confiding that she is trying to get beyond style and capture her characters in the moment. It is so hard to do. And yet in writing, style is the great befuddler. To avoid it, to simply see and write without bits of other writers–or our own ego– running through our brains, that’s the challenge. To write simply, to capture the truth and not “story” it up makes for prose that seems, in this book, very loose, even baggy.

      1. Naomi Alderman November 14th, 2008 at 2:10 am

        “To write simply, to capture the truth and not “story” it up makes for prose that seems, in this book, very loose, even baggy.”

        Really interesting, Harriet. I agree that the book’s loose; the characters are fascinating, though, so I want to stick with it. But it makes me wonder about where our ideas of the correct ’shape’ and level of ‘tightness’ for a novel come from. I’m finishing up a novel right now and am making those decisions: where to cut, where to expand, how to make it fit into itself more snugly. I know I’m going on about the mysteriousness of writing, but these decisions are so much more instinctive than conscious. What is that instinct? How does one know when it “feels right”?

        I suspect also that there may be an artful artlessness to Lessing’s work. Like a garden planted in “wildflower meadow” style, the notebooks are intended to look like the meandering first draft flow of a writer, but actually I think a lot of shaping has gone into making them look that way.

      2. Harriet Rubin November 14th, 2008 at 7:06 pm

        Naomi, Fascinating post.

        I wonder if one of the studies Obama made in reading Lessing is how to integrate emotional or sacred story elements with social/political ideas to give each a new authority. Stories are such a big part of the Obama agenda. Dreams From My Father echoes The Aeneid, an epic tale of a young boy going out to finish the country-rebuilding work his dead father prompted him to do. I wonder if Obama studied features of the epic, which seems to me what The Golden Notebook is: a woman’s epic.

        Lessing, in drawing upon so much looseness teaches us a new respect for time in storytelling: to your point of tightness in novels. Maybe that’s an unnecessary value for storytelling, even in a sound-bite world.

        I wonder what advice Lessing would give to Obama about how to tell A Big New Story.

  3. Lenelle Moïse November 9th, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    It’s true, these days, when it comes to consuming novels (or plays or films and other forms of fiction) “authenticity” seems to upstage imagination and craft. Many readers expect writers to be eye-witness-news scribes rather than philosophers. As a reader, my ears perk up at the seductive subtitle “based on a true story” but I also recognize that the truth (or “a truth”) can be woven into good fiction. Personally, I feel most grounded as a writer when my memory is doing a rough tango with my imagination.

    1. Philippa Levine November 9th, 2008 at 10:18 pm

      Interesting. Is the fragmentation around truth a product of a media-saturated world which also keeps telling us (not so convincingly…)that its goal and rationale is to uncover truth? It is, as Lenelle says, seductively comforting to think that we can get at an unvarnished truth, a “real” experience, but it’s too often an excuse for one-dimensionality, for a flattening of complexity, a simple answer that comforts but can hardly tells all. And Lessing knows that, no? She constantly pulls the rug from under your feet, and just as you’re starting to get comfortable… Can’t speak for others but that’s what I want from fiction, a creative, imaginative kick that keeps me from too much complacency.

    2. Philippa Levine November 22nd, 2008 at 3:34 pm

      I was thinking about what Naomi and Lenelle had posted here as I read on p. 211 what Lessing has to say about fiction as evasion. For Anna it becomes obvious that the process of fictionalising is “a means of concealing something from myself,” and it’s this that catalyses her decision to keep a diary. But I wonder if Lessing is pushing here, that is, not just giving us Anna’s mental state and her ideas about her role as a writer, but wanting us to think about fiction’s place, its relevance, its putative universalising qualities and so on.

  4. Naomi Alderman November 14th, 2008 at 2:04 am

    On the subject of this, can’t resist posting this article:–better-at-explaining-worlds-problems-than-reports.html

    I feel like every point in this article deserves an essay in its own right. Two that stick out for me:

    “Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality. The stories, poems and plays we categorise as literary fiction were once accepted in much the same way that scientific discourse is received as authoritative today.”

    Which makes me go aaaaaaaargh. Seriously, I do not think that anyone ever thought that (eg) the legends of Hercules were true in the way that (eg) Euclidean geometry was true. I hate this sort of reductivism about the nature of stories. They’re not just a useful way of providing information, they have - to me - a mysterious and almost sacred purpose. I guess I agree with Lessing more than I thought, at least about the journalism-novel. I’m not sure that the philosophy-novel is so much better, though.

    And this:

    “Fiction works by appealing to people’s emotions, not their intellect or rationality.”

    I keep typing things to say about this bald statement (ah, these people with their statements of TRUTH) and then deleting them. I don’t know where to start with it. Actually, maybe I do: is it really possible to talk about any issue or any person without engaging both emotions and intellect?

    Anyway, slightly off topic, but if nothing else it proves how relevant Lessing’s ideas still are today.