I posted yesterday’s blog on the Red Room website and got an interesting response from the author Rosy Cole. Rosy took me to task over my use of the term ‘homogenisation of culture’. In her comment, she drew attention to the diversity that in fact exists in Britain today:
“Scratch the surface and you uncover any number of disparate realities. The Hindu, African, Caribbean, Muslim, Christian experience, the Catholic v Protestant experience. The rich v poor experience. Have we really abolished the class system, or has it re-configured itself? The disabled v able-bodied experience. Just the Polish experience by itself. They are hardworking, good-natured, courteous and don’t bang on about rights. But they have antagonised a fair chunk of jobless Britons who prefer not to undertake what they consider menial tasks, yet who are not prepared to try and create their own work, or avenue of service to society.“
She’s right, of course. And the righter she is, the harder it is to encapsulate that diversity in a work of fiction.
In my defence, I think it’s true that there is a commercial homogenisation of the mainstream, and the mainstream has a strong pull that sucks a lot of us in, some of the time at least. But it does not represent the totality of experience available, and lived, today in Britain.
As I sit here and grapple with the enormity of the task – that of ‘writing contemporary’ – I realise that a lot depends on where you choose to point your gaze. A panoptic gaze simply isn’t possible.
In some ways, writing fiction is an inherently reductive activity. It reduces the great, sprawling, unmanageable chaos of existence to a meaningful – but constrained – narrative. To achieve that narrowing, some things will be included, those that reinforce the meaning, but a lot will be excluded. Otherwise the narrative would simply fall apart into the same incoherence of life. In which case, it becomes redundant.
But whatever specific story a writer chooses to tell, behind that story is a larger background that impacts on, shapes, and in fact determines what that story is. To return to my own case, my hope is that the idea I’m developing will somehow enable me to hold a mirror up to contemporary society.
When writing my historical crime novels, I always tried to construct stories that derived naturally from my chosen period and setting – late nineteenth century tsarist Russia. Or at least from my understanding of it. Turning to contemporary fiction, it seems sensible to apply the same approach.