Author Kirsty Gunn offers poignant reflections on being a novelist in contemporary literary culture: on the need to be ‘relevant’ and to engage with market imperatives and audience expectations; the novelist and her relationship with the world, society, and lived, day-to-day experience; the inevitable conjunction of art and politics; the novel as a consumer product catering to current tastes and ideas of literary celebrity, but, above all, as a form of and for the world.
by Kirsty Gunn
I found myself saying to a fellow novelist the other day: “Right now I can’t imagine a world where the kind of thing I write will be of interest at all. I’ve never felt less ‘relevant’.”
I wanted to use that word in particular – “relevant” – with all its associations of mainstream media and Quality Metrics and academic ‘Impact’ and all the rest of it... I wanted to describe how outside that loop my own writing was, but I also used the word because it lurks there, at the back of any novelist’s mind, I think, for the simple reason that, surely, being relevant is what novels have always been about. Jane Austen’s women in their sprigged muslins were relevant for her readers in a way that Emily Dickinson, in her own sprigged muslin, with her poems, was not. So the novelist here was speaking as a novelist – the kind of writer who, from the outset, because of the genre she has selected and chosen to practise, has opted for a relationship with what I will call the worldliness of the world.
“Oh, now,” my friend replied. He writes novels, but is also known as a critic, scholar and essayist. “You and I don’t write to be ‘relevant’,” he said. “We write because we want to, we need to, we have things to say...” And off he went, one well argued point after another, all the good reasons there for making art... for art’s sake.
It’s a concept I have tussled with all my writing life, though – the relationship my work might have not only with other works of art but with society, community and the lived, domestic experience of the day-to-day. As I say, I chose fiction over poetry, book reviewing over academic critique, and – though I write them as though they were short stories, only longer, one story here, another there – yes, I write novels. That art form rising up directly from, that is supposed to be a mirror of, life; that means of conveying interiority while presenting on its surfaces the familiar and the strange, that might show us how to live, even... It is my writing home.
And, in the same way, novels come out into the world, into the bookshops – as they have since they were first written* – in the expectation that they will be quite generally read. So do I bear some kind of bond to that wider society, then, the world. In the way that novels belong to the general reader, Woolf’s “common reader”, who roams about in her tastes and priorities, who changes her mind, or follows this writer or the next, so do novels ask that a whole range of people might engage with them. They are outward facing, that way; according to their position in our culture. So the reader who shares her ideas about this novel with another, who in turn takes on their advice – she is not the same as the reader of poetry, or critique, or literary essay or academic paper for whom choice and taste and preference are dictated by a specific skill set and level of expertise. In fact, by contrast, she is capricious and capacious and protean in her habits, catholic in taste. Because of this, the books she selects for her attention enter the communities they describe relatively easily – it takes no more than a broad interest in this kind of work for it to be taken up and celebrated by specialist markets and a general readership in equal measure – and, often, the novels become part of those places they reflect in their pages; their inhabitants spokespeople for other worlds and points of view and sensibilities. In turn, this most open-facing reader – prompted in her taste by media coverage and publicity – helps the novelist extend the significance of what she writes about, bringing that subject forward for general attention. Volume of readership, as it were, underwrites ideas of value. And yes, compared to the poem or philosophical treatise all this is relatively easy to achieve: The open-ness of the novel to global trade, its availability as a consumer product in the marketplace, makes it so.
So for sure, that expectation of reach, of an interested crowd out there in the world who might be interested in what we write, a willingness to engage with that market, is there in the writing and publishing life of the novelist from the start. From my first ‘novel’ that actually developed out of a series of short stories – “We love the stories, but when you’re ready to send us a novel, that’s what we’ll be interested in publishing,” my own publishers said to me, many, many years ago when I was starting out as a writer – I believed that the readers were out there and that my book could and would find them. I believed in the reviews process, in coverage in the papers and magazines that would help the book on its way; I believed in the prize culture that existed to bring novels out into the light that may otherwise not have been noticed. In short, I believed that novels – of and for the world – would find their way in it.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I don’t believe any of those things. Well, I believe it for some novels – novels that pick up on the zeitgeist, that seem to track the mood and fashions of the age, that have an ear for a sort of gossip and popular interest or the big political stories and preoccupations of the day – but in general I now worry for this apparently ‘popular’ form. For though the novel belongs to the world, so it is also tentatively, riskingly, well, novel, innovative and experimental; wonderful and terrible and finished but also “starred with imperfection”, to paraphrase Woolf in another context, an erratic and exciting source of energy that lives within our lives. Again, my idea of worldliness applies here – the novel as expression of dasein; and so its ‘relevance’ is various and organic and mysterious and always changing. So not worldliness as the world knows it. Indeed, more and more, it seems to be the case that the form has become instead defined in that other sense; hardened into a kind of economic rationale; a mannerism, actually: novels as content-delivering machines for the entertainment industry, for book fairs and promotions, for the sake of driving certain politically or ethically driven agendas, for headlines. So in the last thirty years, just as with our economy, we have seen a sort of stripping process set in, to create a culture of winners and losers whereby the same kinds of books are read and praised, the same kinds of authors appear over and over again – the ‘big hitters’, the ‘big stories’, the ‘big sales’... This is the pattern of activity that seems to dominate our ideas now of literary publishing, of the novel. For the other kind of work, that isn’t or doesn’t want to be part of that culture, we must hunt hard, now, and deep.
Certainly, in my own case, all the books I love and read and buy – new titles, recent works as well as established publications – are those I have come to be interested in through my life as a writer and teacher and essayist. My selections are based on the culture I have inhabited over the years and continue to plant around me with the arrival of fresh knowledge and new ideas – via a community of like-minded readers and writers and colleagues, along with the magazines and journals they support which also often publish them... All this, for the most part, is a reciprocal arrangement based on long term association and intellectual and aesthetic shared context that is at far remove from mainstream review pages and popular culture where ‘the next big thing’, along with trending tastes and current fashions and ideas of literary celebrity, dominate the decision-making process. So then these books of mine and their authors speak to particular remits that are at a goodly remove from the razzamatazz of prize circuits, big book festivals and the whirligig of maintaining a profile in the popular press. They are nourishing in a way I can’t hope to find nourishing most of the offerings of contemporary literary culture – fixed as it is on the trends and fashions and politics of the moment. But what all this means is that I have realised that though I am more of a reader than ever, alas, I can call myself no longer a “common reader”. What’s more, I know too that that constituency from which I find myself expelled, moulded as it has been by economics and popular culture, will be no more interested in my opinions and novels than I am by its trends and savvies.
This is not to say those aspects of publishing – prevailing taste, what’s hot what’s not, etc. – are not interesting: The events taking place now, the current thinking and debate around gender and race and the rhetoric of class, criminality and economics... Our current literary and publishing world is often quite rightly powered by the media, influenced by its target issues. It is part the very reason we have journalism and reportage and debate in the first place, not only to review the world as it is but to help ignite change, and, as I have suggested, novels have always been part of that make-or-break deal. There are times when the pen indeed may be mightier than the sword, when old certainties can be transformed by a new language; that’s the ‘Action’ that becomes enmeshed in ‘Art’: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is an example, a crafting of vocabularies and invented syntax and ordinary talk, making language that speaks back, in another tongue, to the prevailing sound-centre of culture and power. So of course we can always say that there’s an “art” to being political, to being able to make one’s work be part of that deliberate action which is the work and resistance to the power of State upon the individual.
But Finnegans Wake, as we know, found its way to us not by being ‘newsworthy’ or ‘topical’ but by being particular. It is by idiosyncratic and individually imaginative means that it has arrived with us, not via the bestseller lists but through the Academy, and through specialised scholarship and critique and cultural study. It’s here with us today, as vividly important as ever, not because it was written with a ‘customer’ in mind but, rather, an interested individual; a ‘reader’ – not a ‘readership’ – who would puzzle over and question and marvel at and be exhilarated by Joyce’s endlessly frustrating and life-enhancing project. Art becomes political, then, when we so engage; in the same way that we recognise that we can’t help but live politically, whether we want to write about politics or not, the minute we think for ourselves and challenge prevailing norms.
And so, after many years of backwards-and-forwards thinking – to be relevant, or not to be relevant, to be of the world or outside it – mindful of Seamus Heaney’s phrase, in his Nobel Prize speech, “I straightened up”, having been, for years, “like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative”, as he describes his decision to enter into the realm of the political through the doorway of his personal experience as a poet. I have decided to make my peace with the clamour of the marketplace and our current version of civic life, and set up camp here, somewhere else, with my influences not drawn from that other busy place but still perhaps I am attached, somehow, to it. And might I call it the sidelines? My position here? No, I think not, for that would be to infer I was only looking on at all that’s going on... When what I am doing, though on my terms and in my own way, is participating in this beautiful, confused, ugly and revelatory and shimmering and mysterious world of ours by making the novels I want to make, for my own reasons that have nothing to do with being popular yet still wish to be connected.
Relevance... then. Maybe I need to turn the word inside out and ask: Instead of relevant where, how and to whom, rather, what and who may I find in this writing adventure of mine that may be relevant to me?
* Michael Schmidt’ s The Novel: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2014) is an indispensable guide for anyone needing to check in on the status of long-form fiction over the years: the history and sensibility of a genre that has always been held in relation to a perceived “readership”.
Kirsty Gunn writes novels, short stories and essays and is published by Faber and Faber and internationally. She is Research Professor at the University of Dundee and Associate Member of Merton College, Oxford. With Gail Low she established The Voyage Out Press, a publishing venture dedicated to thinking about new ways of writing about literature, the arts and the world.