I recently attended a Writing Retreat and a workshop run by Mandy Hagar. She made the comment that all writing is a political act. At first, I was perhaps disconnected from this idea, but slowly it wormed its way into my thoughts, throughout the weekend. And eventually, I could see, she is of course, right. The very act of writing is to express a point of view, whether fiction or non-fiction. We write because we feel something and our expressions either overtly or subconsciously reflect our life experience, our class, and indeed, our politics.
I raised the point at my last book club meeting and a fellow book clubber pointed out to me, that all my novels have been political. It caught me by surprise, and then I was flattered. Especially, my first novel which was indeed about the unspoken class system in New Zealand. I wrote about marching girls and book clubs and had the most interesting outcome. I was expecting marching girls to flock to read it (and some did), but mostly book clubs, and as a result, many of them feted me… the fascinating thing about this, was the prevailing theme from these book clubs… they still viewed marching as this very quaint, odd and er… working class thing… and so although they liked my book (some even loved it), in a weird and sometimes confronting way, I was faced with my own conflicting allegiances. Over and over I heard women say ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl… but my mother wouldn’t allow it’… or something to this effect. It had the impact of expressing a quaint longing, but almost a relief that indeed, ‘their mother’ wouldn’t allow it. They were unconsciously placing themselves firmly in the middle class, with some relief, it seemed.
Too my novel about Greece, was an attempt to write a little about the Greek Civil War, because I knew that many people knew nothing about it, and that in Greece, it is often the great unspoken conversation. I was also fascinated with the burial and unburial rituals in Greece… what could be seen in the current climate, as a very sensible use and re-use of land… so yes, political. And too, the little-known story of the Greek girls who came to New Zealand under a Government scheme in the sixties.
As for my second novel, about a middle-aged man and his step-daughter. I did set out to write about broken marriages, how the past informs the present and the love between fractured families. How friendship can happen when hearts heal.
Then, on Twitter this week, I got into a bit of to and fro about reviewing. I posited the idea that a book review is also political, neither right nor wrong, just a point of view, imbued with the reviewer’s bias, and life experience. Of course, of bias there should be none in the perfect review, but that’s impossible, perhaps. Readers and reviewers alike, bring their past and present to the page. It’s why we engage. To find something of ourselves we recognise, or to know more about others. Someone commented that readers like or dislike a book, but a reviewer must be more objective and support their opinion with research and reasons for the book’s failures or achievements. It’s all true, but still, the reviewer’s life experience is the key informant of their response, just like any reader… who likes or dislikes. But too, in book group, I find, the more flaws a book has, the more discussion it generates. So, it seems, imperfection, allows our political responses to creep into the cracks and we share our responses. This way the book continues to have an impact beyond the written word, often in a way, that a book we all agree to love, does not.
I’ve not read ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver, but at my book group meeting which I hosted recently, everyone else had, and they all really liked it (they saw its flaws, at times didactic) but they loved what Kingsolver was doing on the page, the two stories, the one house. I see on Goodreads that many fans of Kingsolver are not so enthused. My book group is full of feisty, clever, intelligent women and I trust their judgement… so of course, I will now read this book. I will ignore the reviews. 😊
Which books win prizes, which books make the best seller list, and which books get a lot of publicity is also inherently political. And yet, as writers we all know, that even just the one reader that a writer touches (I’m quoting Mandy Hagar again), can make the writing of the book worthwhile.