In an essay on the short story – Principles of a Story – Raymond Carver quotes Ezra Pound who says that ‘Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing’.
This idea of fundamental accuracy of statement seems to me to be at the heart of both my own writing practice as a novelist and as a teacher of the craft of writing. I want to explore this statement in relation to the impulse towards social realism in my own work and to explore the idea of writerly responsibility, which inevitably comes attached to the notions of truth telling inherent in the realist mode.
In writing my first novel Massive I felt an irresistible sense of responsibility for what I wrote. This perhaps wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but it was an unavoidable part of my personality. It came from many influences: growing up with the Bible as the main household text; being a part of the group of Birmingham writers in the Tindal Street Fiction Group, whose main aesthetic was British social realism, their ur-texts being especially the English social realists such as George Orwell, Barry Hines, Stan Barstow, Allan Sillitoe, Nell Dunn and the films of Ken Loach; and studying for a literature degree that focused largely on 19th Century realism – the novels of Dickens, Zola, Eliot etc.
But this wasn’t necessarily something I was conscious of, or in control of either. A writer’s first novel is always a revelatory experience, especially to the writer who is just beginning to find and define their voice.
For me the public intention of social realism was translated into the private practice of fundamental accuracy of statement.
Through the process of writing novelists see books from the ground up, through sentences, clauses and adjectives, nouns and prepositions, dialogue, narrative, prose. Poetics if you will. When I sat down to write Massive, which is written in a realist mode, my main concern was not to attempt to unpick that aesthetic choice in any kind of grand way, it was with rather more prosaic questions, namely, who are these characters and am I getting away with it?
Take this extract from my first novel:
Grandad’s hedge has become a public nuisance. A man from the council has been round, told him to cut it down.
“I pay my taxes, same as everybody else,” he said. “I have rights you know. Rights.”
Nana’s given up nagging him because it doesn’t do any good. “He’ll cut it down soon enough,” she says. “He’ll have to.”
It’s Dynasty week on UK Gold. The whole series from start to finish in one week. “Love this programme,” she says, cracking a humbug between her teeth. “I thought we could go to the shops in a bit, get some treats.”
She shifts in her seat, her thighs rippling under the thin material of her dress. She pushes her glasses up her nose and leans closer to the TV, reaching over for the bag of sweets and sitting them on her lap like a cat.
There are many artifices at work in the book which are easy to analyse after the event. The idea that Grandma might put a bag of sweets on her lap instead of a comforting cat is a much neater and more accurate way of showing how, for Grandma, food is a matter of comfort. This to my mind is what accuracy of statement means – hitting the nail on the proverbial head without having to spell it out. Showing and not telling.
The voice of the book is also a very deliberate manipulation – first-person present tense. The great ‘I am’. The voice of Massive is pretending to the reader that the story is happening at the same time as they are reading it.
This artifice can be discussed in terms of the point of view. Maureen Freely describes point of view as the window through which a reader views a story. If the window is not in the right place, how can the reader see? Added to this is scene selection – the way in which a novel is written as little snapshots of prose – a selection which is meant to appear abstract but which creates what Roland Barthes would describe as ‘the reality effect’.
Modernist writers were determined to lay bare this artifice, to unpick the ‘reality effect’ and show it to be the artificial styling it really is. But although there may not be a desire to create a ‘reality effect’ in modernist writing, there is still a push for accuracy. Joyce’s Molly Bloom is Molly Bloomish precisely because the passionate hyperbole that Joyce uses for her voice is an attempt at accuracy of statement. Within the framework of a Joycean aesthetic he is still striving to be accurate.
Whatever our aesthetic choices – modernist, postmodernist, realist – the good writer has a responsibility to accuracy. To find the words that best sum up the scene, the character, the event they are describing. This is fundamental to good writing and, if pursued rigorously, inevitably creates the style of the writer’s work.
Statement is the one sole
Whether the novelist likes it or not, in coming to a place where they have an identifiable ‘voice’, they are revealing a great deal about themselves. About their prejudices, viewpoints, backgrounds, whether they mean these things to be on display or not. Zadie Smith talks eloquently in an essay on writing about how, for a writer, personality is unavoidable:
[Writers] understand style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.
Zadie Smith Fail Better
This ‘education of the emotions’ is the part of writing that is really hard to teach and which often causes a writing workshop to veer between a psychology class, a philosophy class and an English lesson. To enable writers to ‘fail better’ they need to read themselves more clearly as well as understand the vital importance of not sleepwalking through clichés, of being attuned to the sentences in front of them, and not necessarily concerning themselves with the bigger picture of where the book might fit on the bookshelves of literary history.
So for a writer to be fundamentally accurate is not to say that a piece of work needs to come from this genre or that tradition, merely that it needs to remain accurate to its characters and original intentions and to that author’s personality. It’s an exhortation to be oneself, as well as reminder to do away with cliché or bland hyperbole (although in the right context both cliché and hyperbole can also be servants of accuracy) and a reminder to focus on trying to tell the writer’s truth. This obviously is an impossible goal, because language and meaning are so inherently slippery, but it is an irresistible force within the creation of a piece of work. Writers like to think that they are getting it right, which is why when they fail, or when another writer takes issue with their notion of ‘truth’ they often get paranoid, upset, or rancorous; they see these mistakes not just as syntactic errors but as a moral errors too.
In 2003 the Young Adult writer, Melvin Burgess, published a controversial book about teenage boys called Doing It. If the title doesn’t give it away, the book was about boys and sex, and used what critical theorists might call the low demotic to express what ‘doing it’ might mean. He didn’t hide anything and the boys’ discourse on sex is often driven by the language of pornography and the kind of swaggering sexual boasting that boys often engage in as a means of hiding their own embarrassment and inexperience.
In a review in the Guardian, the then Children’s Laureate Anne Fine took great exception to this book, labelling it as ‘vile and disgusting’ and telling the publishers in no uncertain terms that ‘they should be ashamed of themselves’. There are very clearly two very different personalities at work here: Burgess who is notoriously edgy and deliberately provocative; and Anne Fine, who, in resorting to the kind of correctives usually associated with the classroom, made herself sound like a censorious schoolmarm.
Who was right? Well, perhaps neither. And their responses to the subject of ‘doing it’ gave away more about their personalities and prejudices than they meant to reveal. Certainly, Burgess was delighted to stir up controversy and Anne Fine fell into that trap. But perhaps also the novel was overstated; so intent was it on stirring up controversy it forgot to be accurate to the characters. Certainly the plot – about a student who sleeps with his teacher – seems to be taken more from fantasy than reality. But then, living near a school as I do, having teenage boys peering over the fence and asking me ‘miss, d’you want to suck my dick?’ it is not quite so far fetched. And Fine’s point that this book demeaned women was also true; but this kind of discourse also demeans boys, and perhaps that was Burgess’s ultimate point – that when you let the language of pornography educate men about sex, this is the result.
Perhaps, in the end, neither party came off well. They were both arguing their truth but neither was accurate to the more subtle points that underpinned their arguments.
Tim Parks calls this kind of spat ‘writerly rancour’, and believes it is sometimes essential to the production of a piece of work – i.e. my truth is more true that your truth. And it can be a powerful driver of narrative to want to ‘correct’ a particular world view or aesthetic by replacing it with a better, more truthful one. Literary history is littered with these kinds of arguments – Fielding vs Richardson; Geer vs Rushdie; Naipul vs Theroux; Mailer vs Wolfe.
As an aesthetic choice, Social Realism has this same argumentative impulse, as it wants to act as a corrective to the ‘lies’ peddled by more commercially minded books or by wider culture. Or it wants to shine a light on an unwritten corner of the world and bring it to our attention. This was certainly my intention with my second novel, Dirty Work, which dealt with issues of sex trafficking. If Massive was written unconsciously in the realist mode, then Dirty Work was a very deliberate deployment of that technique to the service of an issue I felt was morally important.
Morality of writing
This brings me to the final clause in Pound’s statement – the idea of the Morality of Writing. The notion that a book is a moral object goes right back to the sacred texts. But it is also, as Aristotle points out in his Notes on Tragedy, an unavoidable consequence of the structure of storytelling.
It is the ending of a piece of work that often punctures the ‘reality effect’ I talked about earlier. The close of a story, especially a story pretending to be created from an abstract selection of scenes – eavesdropping on real life –is the place where the writer finally has to acknowledge the artifice.
In organising an ending, deciding how the denouement will happen, what the final scene will be, the writer is making a moral decision about the outcome of the narrative.
Morality is inscribed in the bare mechanics of structure in fiction. Whether the writer likes it or not. Closure infers meaning on everything that has already gone before it. Does good triumph over evil? Does the character learn something about themself? Are they happy ever after?
We can make a broad distinction between commercial fiction and literary fiction by saying that a commercial novel has a happy ending and a literary novel a much more equivocal one. Take for example the ending of Anthony Horowitz’s latest Alex Rider novel, Snakehead. The novel ends with Alex exposing the global trafficking ring and getting the girl. He gets rewarded for being the good guy who takes risks for the greater good. It is interesting to note that Horowitz writes in his acknowledgements for Snakehead that he strives to make his books as ‘accurate as possible’. And he goes on to give thanks to NASA, CMA Shipping and Thai kickboxing instructors in Bangkok among others. While this might show his desire to research his details, his characters still exist in a fantasy world of children with superpowers and super-wealth who are able to solve global crimes with the help of parachutes and stealth bombers.
The Horowitz version of accuracy is to uncover the proper nouns for everything he describes, but any sense that the events in the book are accurate – even though it uses sex trafficking as its criminal motif – is undermined by the inaccurate fantasy of the ending, which presents the world as we might wish it to be, but not as it is. The novel comes straight out of the world of Omega timepieces and sophisticated suits that underpin the fantasy of James Bond.
Compare this to the ending of A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines – the story of a young boy, Billy Caspar, who lives in a grim mining town in Yorkshire, and trains and looks after a kestrel. The book is written in a realist mode and shows Billy struggling to come to terms with the constraints of class expectation and his own inadequate education. He loves the bird because it is a symbol of the freedom he does not have. At the end of the novel his jealous brother kills the kestrel. The final sentences run as follows:
‘When he arrived back home there was no one in. He buried the hawk in the field just behind the shed; went in and went to bed.’
The novel does not pretend that the characters in the book have the power to change the wider world or even, in the working class context Hines was describing, that they have the power to change their status. The character lives beyond the ending of the novel in an urgent, questioning way, although, as he’s gone to bed, grieving for the one thing he loved, we aren’t left with much of a sense of hope for his future. But we can perhaps imagine Billy Caspar or boys like him, the ones at school whose parents were poorer than ours, whose teachers had little hope or expectation that they would or could go anywhere in life. The story doesn’t really end. It just stops, and as a tactic, this gives us the sense that the book is a slice of life, taken from a bigger and even more depressing picture. In short, we are convinced of its accuracy, which is why the work endures.
To me, Pound’s statement highlights the moral obligation that a writer who aspires to literature has to accuracy. This is not an obligation to an aesthetic, but rather to statement; and if statements are an expression of personality, then the moral obligation is, in the end, mostly to ourselves.