A Right and Proper Subject

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The novel writing course I’m following, which comes to a finale on Monday, has been very thought provoking. In many ways. I’ve had to reassess the story I thought I was writing. It was a bit of a shock to discover that Elin, the character I thought was the focus of the novel, was perhaps not. Perhaps she’s merely an observation point for viewing the true central character. More of that another time.

Long teeth

It’s been enjoyable – and a bit of a relief as well – to see other people’s stories develop and change almost as dramatically.

There are nine of us on the course. Every story is different and we are all clearly at different stages in our development as novelists. Several of the course participants, it seems to me, can look forward to shining careers. Others, like me, are coming to the profession a bit long in the tooth.

(I think I’m probably the one with the longest teeth, mind you. But I’m still hopeful for that shining career.)

A Right and Proper Subject: Long in the tooth but still scribbling
Long in the tooth but still scribbling


Last Monday’s session involved us all submitting very short synopses of our novels-in-progress. It was the first chance to see the arcs of one another’s stories. Prior to this, we’d each submitted three or four extracts highlighting central characters, subsidiary characters, conflicts, research, description etc. Now we were able to slot the incidents and characters we have met into the frames we have each constructed to contain them.

The pressure to keep the synopses short (300 words) was a challenge. More for some of us than others perhaps. I cheated and “misunderstood” the instructions, winning myself another 55 words. Actually I expected several of the others would do the same, but no. Everyone else kept tightly to the word limit, straying outside by no more than 5 or 6 words. At least one person brought her synopsis in under the limit. (Yes, I counted.)

Just one of our number doesn’t have a fully developed novel – or perhaps has too many potential novels competing for brain space. Going by the extracts we’ve all seen so far, I think we might have been expecting a science-fiction story or a fantasy from him. Instead he presented an historical novel about a slave ship sometime in the late 1700s.

The format of the course gives us the opportunity to comment on one another’s efforts during workshops, Zoom-facilitated on-line. This slave ship scenario was the only one to come in for serious criticism. From several different sides.

Which brings me to the title of this piece. What is a right and proper subject for a novel? Are there wrong and improper subjects?

A right and proper subject

Our slave-ship-synopsis writer had produced a well-written and coherent story outline in which a former naval officer in his new post aboard a trader, learns that it will be involved in the triangle trade just before it sails from the port of Bristol. The hero and several members of the crew, together with a couple of shipwrecked passenger picked up along the way, (all of them white), sail to Senegal, pick up slaves, cross the Atlantic, suffer in sickness on the way, arrive in Haiti and discharge the surviving slaves. The slave trade is not condoned, it is criticised, but…

Our friend half-joked that the story was inspired by the on-going protests. These, in Britain, in Bristol, saw the toppling of a statue of a slaver-philanthropist into the harbour.

My reaction was that I couldn’t see any commercial potential in the story as it stood. And that I thought the grief he might attract on line wouldn’t be worth it. I encouraged him to reconsider the character distribution and give at least as much space to at least one named slave character as he was giving to the white characters.

One of our number did not think we should be thinking about the commercial potential of this subject at all. That it was too serious and too sensitive to be the subject of a fiction. She also wanted our fellow writer to seriously ponder whether he felt, being a white man, this was his story to tell.

There were other reactions, but these two strike me as particularly interesting.

The freedom of the author

In both cases, we were advising our colleague to practice self-censorship. My reason focused on the commercial potential of the story. (That was a surprise to me when I came to analyse it.) My female colleague’s reasons seemed to be moral.

And this gets me wondering, what is a right and proper subject for a novel today.

The answer I come up with is: there is none.

The writer is, and should be, free to write on any subject in any way that feels appropriate to them. No one should feel constrained to write in a certain way, about certain subjects. It is true that writing from one’s own lived experience is likely to give one an edge. But no one should be forbidden from practising empathy and using research to experience the world and write from the perspective of anyone else. Or any animal, or any spirit, or any object for that matter.

A right and Proper difference
A right and proper difference

No readers guaranteed

That said, there is no requirement for anyone else to read what a writer has written. If a writer wants to be published (not self-published), and for their books to be marketed and read, then they will probably write with at least half an eye on the interests of the reading public. Or at the very least the niche interests of that portion of the reading public the writer hopes to reach.

Writing an historical novel using the slave trade as a backdrop might go down well with some people. It would certainly have been a possibility in the mid-1800s when it might even have been seen as daring. But today? It might work in certain narrow genres – bodice ripping historical romance perhaps. But not in the wider literary world, I suspect.

One of the books I read last year, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, has a few sections in which the slave trade in West Africa is explored principally from the point of view of several African characters, but also some Europeans. This is the perspective from which the slave trade can be viewed nowadays in a commercially successful novel. It’s also morally and commercially acceptable that Yaa Gyasi is a young, Ghanaian woman. (She was only 26 when Homegoing was published.)

This is not to try to undermine Yaa Gyasi’s achievement. Homegoing is a gripping read and fully deserves all the success it has had. (And if you haven’t read it, you should!) But it’s difficult to imagine the book being quite so successful, everything else being equal, if it had been written by a white man.

Trying on a skin

In the wider world, beyond the writer at his or her desk, there are certainly right and proper subjects. These ebb and flow with the fashions and events of a wider world. Sixty-odd years ago a novel about a man discovering his sexual ambivalence – his attraction to men and women – was a shocking event. But when Giovanni’s Room came out (in 1956) there was another reaction as well. How could James Baldwin, a black man, write convincingly about white men, people asked. (All the principal characters in Giovanni’s Room are white.) And yet, he does.

Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) was revolutionary enough at the time. An auto-biographical novel about the Black American experience. But after that, Baldwin deliberately chose to write “out of his comfort zone” as some might say today. To write from within the skin of a white American in Paris.

Now here I sit, an elderly white man, writing a novel that is in large part about the experience of women in the 16th century. Many of them young women.

Some questions to ponder

Is this a right and proper subject for me? I hope I’ve established that, yes, of course it is. But anyone else is free to have a go too.

Can I pull it off? I hope I can. I’m certainly having fun trying.

Will anyone read it (if I ever get to the end of it)? Some will, at least. My wife, my sister, several female friends. I’ll abide by their judgement.

Will it ever get published? Who knows? I live in hope.

Read more…

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