It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction
How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times
In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.
So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).
In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,
‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’Salman Rushdie
I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.
Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.
The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.
It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.
While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?