The Graun today has a short blast in praise of Martin Amis - 'for his engagement as well as his gifts.' Apropos the first, the writer tells as follows:
The Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski laid out the charge 20 years ago. Witnessing the travails of Africa, he wondered why he never met other writers out there. On returning to Europe he found them "writing their little domestic stories; the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce - in short the same story we've been reading over and over again for a thousand years." Kapuscinski held that most avant garde literature was so because of its style ("as if assembled in a workshop"), not its subject ("it is never caught actually looking out at the world").Perhaps there's something in the wider context of Kapuscinski's quoted remarks that protects them against what I'm about to say; I don't know. But, taken at face value, they strike me as philistine. I mean, if you can't write War and Peace but can only manage Pride and Prejudice, why bother? Don't even think of writing Breathing Lessons, when you could be working on The Plot Against America.
Not that I want to argue against engagement in the sense in which the Guardian's editorialist intends it. As people, we all have obligations in the face of suffering and the existence of injustice. But nothing whatseover obliges a writer of fiction to make this his or her subject. If writers continue to write domestic and intimate stories, it is because there are readers who want to read them; and if this has been so 'for a thousand years', it may be because such is the interiority, the stuff, of people's lives. They are in families, marriages, jobs, homes, love affairs, personal conflicts, places, stages of life, and all the rest of it. These are not invalid forms of experience for writers to write about.