Culture Wars: Are you who you write?
Novelist Tim Parks talked to Claire Fox about the problem of over-literal, non-literary criticism
'He's a misogynist.' So a friend summed up the novelist Tim Parks. She could not even bring herself to read Destiny, Parks' latest book. 'Once he used the terms "totty" and "shag wagon" in Europa, I couldn't read on.'
Parks' 1997 Booker-nominated novel Europa was referred to by feminist publisher Carmen Callil as 'an atrocious piece of penis waving'. Despite wryly admitting that this statement was good for sales, Parks pleads not guilty, and claims he was 'appalled at being presented so negatively'. So where did the label come from?
Some critics, it seems, take Parks' stories rather too literally. The tendency to give an over-literal reading of fiction is one of the most irritating habits of contemporary criticism. Driven by a political agenda rather than a literary one, it betrays an acute failure of the imagination as much as it shows critics' lack of artistic appreciation. Authors find themselves pilloried for their attitudes while the story itself is conveniently ignored.
As Parks told me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, once he starts working on a novel about relationships, 'I want to forget all the problems of the political attitudes of women to men and vice versa'. In Europa, for example, he was most interested in 'the idea of the coach trip across Europe, put together with that particular love story of obsessive disappointment that protracts itself beyond any possible, reasonable point'. He is aware that using incorrect language 'is what did Europa down' - but that language showed a group of fictional male lecturers talking about their female students in sexist terms, for a particular purpose in the novel. 'The interesting thing to me was how and why the major character used that language. He, unlike the other people who were using those terms, was so desperate to separate himself from an agonising experience that he was determined to present as meaningless and cheap every form of engagement with women - precisely because for him, with his ex-lover, it had not been meaningless and cheap.'
The over-literalism with which many critics now approach literature confuses the voice of a novel's narrator with that of its author. That narrator and author are not one and the same thing is a standard point of literary style. But those reading Parks often forget this; especially as he tends to write in the first person, and his writing is often about what he describes as 'a very intense feeling of disappointment on one side or another'. In his books, 'a lot of the opinions that get expressed tend to be generalising, as a way of saying this is not my fault but something between women and men'. We all know that feeling: I have often bitterly reflected that 'all men are bastards'. This emotional response, which Parks captures through his characters, is not the same as a reasoned argument. But 'the careless reader', says Parks, 'often imagines that what I'm doing here is ranting against women'.
Ironically for a supposed woman-hater, Parks has also found himself in trouble for understanding women too well. In his second novel Loving Roger, the first-person voice is that of a young woman who has killed her boyfriend. At first 'this was a very difficult thing to sell', because Parks the author was not a woman. When it was published, some people were so convinced by the female voice that they suggested the book had been published under a female author's pseudonym.
Critics and publishers seem to have more trouble with grasping the distinction between author and narrator recently, as the vogue for confessional writing has taken off. In this genre, which has effortlessly shifted from non-fiction to fiction, it is deemed inappropriate for authors to assume the mantel of protagonists whose experiences they have not shared. Parks tells a revealing anecdote about his first experience of this. Leo's Fire, a novel he wrote years ago, was an arson story set in Boston and narrated in the first person by a young black man. It was a runner-up in the BBC Book Prize and taken on by a very reputable agent in London. But 'when they found out I wasn't black, they dropped it very rapidly'. Many publishers expressed an interest, 'but a lot of people wanted to know who I was and if I was black'. The book was never published. Then he wrote a book in the first person by a white woman. 'The agency dropped me. I suppose they were thinking, "who the fuck is this guy?".'
The current obsession with finding the 'authentic' authorial voice in literature underestimates the imaginative powers of both writer and reader. Obviously, says Parks, 'one's work does tend to be autobiographical, because it's about the way you think and feel about life in general. Then you find metaphors for that'. But people who demand that the author is the same sex/colour as the narrator 'forget that art is a performance'. Authenticity is not generated by which voice you assume but 'by the whole complexity of the work, and the extent to which it generates recognition in the reader'. This can apply as much to 'a mythological story about the gods or a children's fable' as to a realistic novel. He cynically - although perhaps correctly - suggests that 'obviously there are people who have a vested interest in suggesting that only this or that person can do that'.
Parks also draws out a certain hypocrisy in the way only selected literary voices are queried. He admits that Loving Roger 'was a very anti-male book in a way', but this was never criticised as it did not challenge the new orthodoxy. 'If you think of what Jeanette Winterson got away with in some of her books, with a totally negative portrayal of men in general - and it was very deliberate.' In Sexing the Cherry, men as a sex are described by Winterson 'in authorial third person' as appalling. 'I thought, if I'd done that about women they would have crucified me. But I wouldn't have dreamed of doing that.'
The response to Parks' work, which conflates author with narrator for political reasons, is mirrored in the way political opinion is increasingly conflated with literary judgement. Art is judged less for its style and content than its message. But to judge any work of art as falling short of some societal ideal is ridiculous. As Parks points out, 'we're talking about novels here, not political tracts'. He was amazed by a woman he had recently met who declared that as a socialist 'she liked to read books of socialist orientation'. With that attitude 'you may as well not read at all'. He muses about how many wonderful novels you would miss if you boycotted writers solely because of their political views.
Some authors, under pressure to fit their fiction into a politically clean package, are beginning to slip into easy ready-made formulas. Parks finds it 'pernicious' that there are those writers who have taken to 'crusading against some obvious evil like genocide, or multinationals selling the wrong milk to infants'. While this may give the novelists a feeling of moral purpose, by allowing them 'to vent a lot of anger' and feel they are 'telling the truth about the world', he feels they are spelling out the obvious - 'saying what most people have already cottoned on to anyway'. Pandering to a worthy agenda can lead to a real failure of creativity. As Parks points out, it is these works of fiction 'that are primarily selling views' in which one most reacts against any ideas one finds personally 'distasteful', because 'there's nothing else in the novel, nothing artistic, to recommend it'.
Art, when used to attack easy political targets, becomes two-dimensional and over-simplistic: even pantomimical. Parks recalls attending a recent poetry reading which 'was not only shit, it was unworthy of having been written or spoken in any form. It had a sort of adolescent and facile demolition of certain conventional truths - of Christianity, poking fun at Jesus, and so on and so forth'. Because people do not take this kind of work seriously, 'they don't actually feel challenged by your work at all. I hate all that stuff'.
The world Parks - and indeed any good novelist - reflects in his novels is complex, and not easily understood in black and white terms. There are rarely obvious baddies. But too frequently, contemporary fiction reads like a morality play, where it is only too clear whom the reader should hate and love, and where motives are ironed out smoothly into such categories as evil and good. Some writers, Parks tells me, are all too ready to fill our world with stereotypical villains and are 'avoiding the deeper issues of truth such as what you actually feel about people around you'.
'One of the things that has happened with contemporary fiction, with the likes of Iain Banks and Ian McEwan, is that there are a lot of very evil people and terrible things in their books, as if all the awful things that happen in the contemporary world only happen because of these terribly evil people.' Such an approach, he argues, has more in common with the tabloid press than literature. Take Felicity's Journey, 'that atrocious book where the writer tries to represent the modern problem by having this guy who seduces young girls and kills them. Straight out of the newspapers'.
In calling for writers and readers 'to wake up to the fact that life is difficult, complex, joyful, layered', Parks may not ensure popularity among the new critics. But at least he will continue to write
Tim Parks' latest novel Destiny is published by Secker & Warburg
Read the review at http://www.culturewars.org.uk
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000