Do Novelists Have an Agenda or a Moral Purpose?

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme I listened to a fascinating panel discussion from  the Charleston FestivalTom Sutcliffe questioned four novelists: Tim Winton, Nicola Barker, Michael Schmidt and Karl Knausgaard.

Two of the questions Tom Sutcliffe asked were:
Do novelists have an agenda or a moral purpose?
Do you as a novelist have a moral obligation to your subject?

The answer seemed to be no.

Nicola Barker said that she felt writing a novel is about engaging with the text and the words, and the story is driven forward by “the energy of the moment”, not by any moral purpose whatsoever. She said she starts writing and “a spirit of mischief” overwhelms her.

The novelist embroiders reality to make it habitable; for a fiction writer it’s true to say, “I might not like the world of my story but it’s a world I own.”

I found this discussion interesting because I believe that in writing a novel it is fatal to the story to try and make the story comply with any conscious “moral purpose” on the part of the author.

This feeds interestingly into how one can write a novel that is issue-driven rather than character-driven. And also, how do creative writers write in despotic regimes? How do you create a fictional world, peopled by fictional characters, and ensure that what you say is in line with the agenda of that regime?

From my experience I find that the only imperative as a story develops is to follow where my principal characters lead, as their inner purpose becomes clearer and clearer to me.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit (psycho-spiritual suspense) is now being considered by a publisher. The theme of the novel is conflict between good and evil. And as my characters revealed more of themselves, I realised that there were several ways I could end the novel, and whichever one I chose would be saying something different about the nature of evil.

In my first novel Mystical Circles, I now wish I could have followed John Fowles’ lead in A French Lieutenant’s Woman, and given three alternative endings.

I’ve learned through experience one of the snares a novelist should avoid: to write the ending you think your readers want to see, or expect to see, based upon the feedback of early readers.

A novelist’s only moral obligation is to the inner truth of the characters.

Harmony, the Music of the Spheres and Glimpses of Eternity

Holy Trinity Church, Hatton, Warwickshire (creative commons)
Holy Trinity Church, Hatton, Warwickshire (creative commons)

The other day I was at an inspirational concert in a village church in Warwickshire, Hatton Church, listening to a small choir called Amici sing a mixture of early music and contemporary music.

They sang a capella music by such composers as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Ralph Vaughan Williams. On one occasion the conductor pointed out that five hundred years separated the composers of the two pieces they were about to sing.

The loveliest pieces I heard were Alleluia, I heard a voice by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623); A Spotless Rose by Paul Mealor (b. 1975); Hail Gladdening Light by Charles Wood (1866-1926), Northern Lights by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) and Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970).

As I listened to the glorious harmonies that the singers created I found myself gazing up to the stained glass windows high above the altar. Listening to music like this is like a portal into another world, a higher spiritual dimension, opened up by the singers who produce those exquisite sounds.

Then I thought, this must be what the Music of the Spheres is like. Many authors have explored the idea of the music of the spheres, “a universe bursting with music”. And this concert by Amici brought it to my mind again.

We all have the capacity to create heaven on earth with our voices, creating harmonies that are sublime. I experience this occasionally with the Leamington Spa community choir Songlines.

Never forget that the greatest of instruments is the human voice.


Hope That Eurovision Might Value Performers for Their Own Sake and Not for Their Country’s Politics

I was pleased to see Austria’s win in the Eurovision Song contest 2014. Not only was there the pleasure in seeing a country win that had not seen success at Eurovision for 49 years, but also I thought it a genuinely good song, performed beautifully by Conchita Wurst who has a wonderful voice.

The standard this year was very high and I enjoyed several of the songs and performers. I don’t judge by politics, but by the performance alone, and the performances submitted by Russia and Ukraine were amongst those I personally believed to be the best. The current political situation between those two countries, to me, was irrelevant to the criteria for choice.

Many people love the Eurovision Song Contest, for different reasons; but I hope we have seen signs this year that we may be moving in the direction of valuing talented performers and high quality songs for their own sake alone.

Kairos Moments in Life – Broken Priests and More Insights from BBC TV sitcom ‘Rev’

As I think again about the BBC TV sitcom Rev the word wrecked  comes to my mind.

Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit
Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit

Probably my favourite character in Rev is Colin the local vagrant, brilliantly played by Steve Evets. I described him as a philosopher tramp in my previous post on Rev.

But there is a much darker side to Colin, than that of simply providing an amusing foil to the religious self-doubt of Adam. Colin is, in many ways wrecked. Alcoholic, drug addict, prone to outbreaks of violence when he’s ‘under the influence’, even against those who have previously helped and supported him, he has adopted an equally derelict dog called Bongo as his faithful companion.

In the final episode of the 3rd series we saw Adam in bed with depression, broken in spirit, having been betrayed by several people, Colin among them. Then Colin turns up at the door with Bongo in his arms. Bongo has died – because Colin himself ignored advice and fed him a chocolate Easter egg stolen from the local store.

At this lowest moment, Colin comes to the priest and finds only his wife Alex, not known for her own religious devotion.

You can do a Bongo funeral can’t you Mrs Vicarage?”

To me, this was the most heart-breaking moment of the entire series.

Alex finds herself put on the spot, helps Colin bury Bongo outside their house, and says a few kind words about Bongo. Then she offers that they say the Lord’s Prayer together.

To me, in Rev, this is a Kairos moment – a moment when the very highest shines through in the very lowest.

When in his most vulnerable, wrecked, broken state, this vagrant goes to the one person who can somehow bring some divine perspective into his pain – even though that person is himself broken.

I believe this is the heart of the Christian faith and what Christ was all about.

We all need some divine perspective in our very lowest moments. Thank you to all those who helped to create Rev, and give us this among many other insights.