Now, if I asked you to name some nice writers, i.e. writers who are nice people, I bet that, in the UK at least, Alan Bennett might be at or near the top of the list. And yet, a few years back, in an interview about his play The History Boys, he said ‘no writer's entirely nice, otherwise they wouldn't be writers. It's quite a sneaky profession really’. The remark was picked up and chewed over by members of an online group of writers to which I belonged. I’m reviving it here as a sort of follow-up to the blog I wrote about the difficulty/impossibility of basing characters on real people.
The implication in Bennett’s tongue-in-cheek remark was that we use people’s experiences as our raw materials, distorting or otherwise exaggerating them to suit our purposes. In other words, we exploit people. Well, we do, but I think our excuse is that we do so for a reason and, trying to follow one of Linda’s suggestions, I’ll use my own latest publication to illustrate my point.
Shadow Selves takes place mainly in a university and a hospital. At one point, as part of his investigation, my policeman goes to watch an operation. The description and details of that operation are all taken from a visit I made myself to an operating theatre to watch a thoracic operation at close range. The surgeons delved about inside a woman’s chest cavity, shoving lungs and other red and white bits out of the way, chopping lumps out of tubes, and, at the same time, chatting away about a concert one of them had been to the previous evening. The patient’s head was concealed by a suspended sheet and the surgeons’ entire focus was on the small area of flesh with its big hole, into which they were dipping their hands. In a way, they weren’t dealing with a person but with a sort of anatomical puzzle.
Despite the fact that their manipulation of the various organs that were in their way seemed a bit cavalier, no one would seriously suggest there was anything ‘inhuman’ about their actions. They just needed to be objective and think in terms of the mechanical aspects of what they were doing. So, while chatting about music as you grab a pulsing organ and push it aside may seem disrespectful, intrusive, it’s actually the reverse. The fact that they were prepared to take responsibility for such extreme interventions to improve the lot of a fellow human was an affirmation of their humanity. They cared. They were doing all that so that she’d survive. And she did.
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Scalpels, pens – same thing, really. Except that very few of us use pens any more. Yes, we pick up news stories, snippets of conversation, fragments of real lives, aspects of real people, and we steal them and shape them to suit our subjective purposes. If you like, we don’t treat them with much respect. But usually, these purposes are positive, affirmative things – we want to add to people’s enjoyment, make them laugh, offer them new perspectives, enlighten them, highlight threats to their security/happiness/culture, and a host of other things aimed at lifting them out of the humdrum or the painful.
Of course there are writers who are definitely not nice – political apologists, religious propagandists, individuals with a personal vendetta against society or one of its groups. Such people thrive on distortion, reductionism, cynicism and a dedication to their own cause which shows little respect for those outside its concerns. But I prefer the glass to be half full and the writers I know and celebrate, famous and unknown, are those who write to make other people’s lives better. Like Mr Bennett, they’re nice.