This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme I listened to a fascinating panel discussion from the Charleston Festival. Tom 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.