Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog - books
Written on good authority
February 22, 2007 08:30 AM
The great and not good ... Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry in Washington Square, August 1966. Photograph: AP
A couple of weeks ago, Howard Jacobson wrote a typically lucid piece about the independent Jewish voice. As usual, I felt myself getting all twisted up about what I really thought about the actions of Israel. Then he mentioned Amos Oz and David Grossman. A gentle feeling of relief fell over me. I thought: the novelists will know the right thing.
But I soon realised that I had made the automatic assumption that modern novelists are good. It was an instinctive extrapolation: if someone writes brilliant prose, they must be an unimpeachable human being.
Think of the great moral dilemmas of the age - terrorism, global warming, multiculturalism. The ethical climate is not set until the novelists have spoken. On September 12th, 2001, it was the novelists who got whole pages to themselves. I remember the same sense of relief: Amis has spoken, McEwen has set it in context. We did not want to hear from the politicians, or the defence experts, or the philosophers even; paradoxically, it was the fiction writers who were needed to frame the most outrageous non-fiction event of our time.
It is not only that we expect writers to navigate the choppy waters of moral confusion; we expect them to be good in private. The Bloomsberries slept with everyone with a pulse; now, there is a huge fuss if a writer so much as changes his agent. William Boyd is almost as famous for his happy marriage as he is for his novels. If Zadie Smith decided to make like the Beats, ingesting every substance known to man and getting into bar brawls, there would probably be questions asked in the House.
It was once enough that the words alone dazzled. Everyone is talking about Auden this week; we are reminded of his naughty dash to America at the first hint of war. I forgive him that just for the first verse of Lullaby. I slightly wish that TS Eliot had not skirted the edges of anti-Semitism, had not been unkind to his wife, but he left us Prufrock; the mermaids singing are absolution enough. I even forgive Hemingway the misogynism, because he invented Lady Brett Ashley.
There is the Parker paradox in all this. By modern standards, Dorothy Parker was not at all good. She drank too much and cut her wrists and let her dogs shit all over her bedroom floor. But she also fought like a tiger for Sacco and Vanzetti, and declined to dance to HUAC's tune. Even if it were not for the poetry and short stories, I still say Mrs Parker 1 - The Rest 0. But she has still gone down in popular imagination as one of the flakes, gin at lunchtime and dodgy love affairs.
Maybe we are asking too much of the writers. It's hard enough to attend to plot, and perfect prose, and playing with the form, without having to be a moral paragon. Should the expectation of goodness not be confined to the page?
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