The Art of Writing No. 28

I began a writing MA at the University of East Anglia around 1970. I was the only student and I followed the year after Ian McEwan. I did not succeed the vagaries of the course which then required you to do two terms of the Literature MA. I left after the first term feeling I had more to offer as a social worker than a writer! My tutor had been Malcolm Bradbury. He said I had a messianic drive to offer answers to the unanswerable. Curiously, I hadn’t even thought of my work that way. Now I have written Azimuthand what is it about? – people who search for answers to the unanswerable, albeit on a rollercoaster of mystery and adventure! Probably many authors feel they have something to say that might change readers’ perceptions or attitudes to some aspect of existence, big or small.
Even among the majority of writers, those who make their niches within a strict genre, there is a desire to turn the odd phrase, expand on a concept, throw in a philosophical swerve ball, all to make the reader sit up and say Ah! as s/he experiences a shock of illumination. As I’ve said in earlier pieces, writers are the gods of the book-worlds they create. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author explores just such a theme.  The film The Matrixtransposes it to computer programs in which the avatars want to discover who has created them and rules their virtual universe. Blade Runner has replicants (artificially designed humanoid creatures who can work in deep space) returning to earth to find who built them.  The relationship between an author and characters sits on a spectrum, as I have said, between cipher and flesh and blood, three-dimensional reality. The more you veer towards the latter, the more your characters must influence the narrative. This often results in us asking the following lit crit questions; is the theme one that matters? Do the characters change and develop because of how they experience the effects of the theme in their lives?
For there to be a positive answer to these questions there need to be substantive issues running through the narrative which are returned to over and over again, explicitly or implicitly, via the actions, attitudes and insights of the book’s characters. They can be the thin skin of civilization in Lord of the Flies, the pantheistic glorification of sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, totalitarianism in 1984 and Animal Farm or agnosticism in His Dark Materials.  On the other hand, the themes may be small scale and intensely psychological but recognisable within most people’s lives, such as father and son relationships in A Voyage Around my Father. The more a book’s characters are engaged in some way in trying to handle and navigate what we all find complex and challenging, the more they grow in significance. They cease to be run of the mill, two dimensional appendages to the narrative. They become extensions of ourselves.
All literature, whether formulaic or idiosyncratic and organic, benefits from the author’s dexterity and focus on questions that vex most of us, from the apparently imponderable to the depressingly or upliftingly ubiquitous. They can be like a trace of spice in a bowl of rice or a rich and satisfying sauce on a meal that has taken days to prepare. Depends on what you are writing.
Details on Azimuth can be found at

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