Yesterday Maud Newton posted an interview with the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy that prompted a very mixed bag of feelings. What follows are my thoughts as best as I can collect them. Although it will seem lame and artificial, I want to assure readers, and Maud herself, that my intent is not to somehow attack Maud personally or denigrate her site. I read her regularly and bear no ill will toward her; in fact wish her the best. There seems to be some pressure on her to post more often or cover more subjects or in some way please her readers more. I have no issue on that front. Maud should post whatever she wants whenever she wants. (I had troubling following it but I think I was on Maud’s side in the New Partisan contretemps.) She should do what she thinks is best and in her own interest. I doubt very much that any criticisms coming from this post will hurt her or cause her stress, but if in some way they do I apologize. But this blog is often a way for me to get things off my chest and wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if I held back. What follows is simply my reactions, feelings, thoughts, and whatnot. If you disagree feel free to fire back, if you agree feel free to shout amen, if you could care less feel free to ignore it.
First off what I liked:
– I like the whole idea of a series of writers on writing.
– I too find the interface between issues of faith and contemporary fiction lacking. I agree with Maud on this:
Despite its prominence in our culture, religion is ignored in most contemporary fiction. When it is considered, it is ridiculed or serves as fodder for satire. Kennedy is one of the few current writers whose work seriously engages the subject.
– I found this question and answer interesting and illuminating:
Between your novels, short story collections, nonfiction book on bullfighting, and opinion articles for the Guardian, youâ€™re an incredibly versatile and prolific writer. Do you find it difficult to move between these different forms?
The differences between forms are actually illusions. If you think about them at a fundamental level then what I produce are stories about people that other people have to be able to understand. The stories should all have an honesty within them that indicates a respect for the reader and a self-respect on the part of the author. The honesty of fiction lies in created reality and accuracy of invention, in non-fiction it lies in some kind of ruthlessness and accuracy of observation. (Not that Iâ€™m saying I achieve any of this, but at least Iâ€™m not afraid of going from one form to another.)
It is at this point that the Q&A begins to take a deep plunge for me. Instead of exploring how faith can be dealt with in fiction, the interview seems to turn into a commiseration on the idiocy and dangerousness of America. Maud starts prefacing her questions with long comments full of insinuations and hyperbole:
– “In the States thereâ€™s an ever-widening gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.”
– “thereâ€™s a tradition in the U.S. of religious extremists like LaHaye. After all, the country was founded by zealots. LaHayeâ€™s the contemporary answer to Cotton Mather, the original Puritan fire-and-brimstone preacher. ”
– “Yeah, the media situation in the States is outrageous. We get the truth, or glimpses of it, from the BBC and the international press, and there are documentaries like Control Room, but for the most part our own press just parrots Bushâ€™s spin doctors. Aside from Seymour Hershâ€™s articles for The New Yorker and a few decent segments aired in the last three or four months on CBSâ€™ 60 Minutes, thereâ€™s very little actual reporting.”
– “If Bush gets into the White House again, Iâ€™m not sure I can stay here.”
There are two things that really bug me about this: 1) most of this is rubbish and 2) it is not particularly enlightening.
– I am not sure there is any proof to Maud’s assertion that “thereâ€™s an ever-widening gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.” On top of that it poses so many questions as to make the assertion hopelessly unclear. What type of gap, political, cultural, religious, economic? How is it widening? Have we always had a gap or is it just getting wider? How can you possible compare “evangelical Christians” (defined how?) with everyone one else?
– Again, I am not sure it is accurate to say that “the country was founded by zealots.” I suppose most of the early settlers were religious zealots by today’s standards but outside of the Puritans (who I would guess she is referring to) the motives of the settlers were quite wide ranging and often economic in nature.
– I don’t see Cotton Mather as the original fire-and-brimstone preacher and he is a more complex person than he is given credit for.
– I laughed out loud when Maud deplored the outrageous US media and lauded the BBC and international media for giving us the “truth.” This is silly. Has Maud missed the controversy surrounding the BBC? Does she really think the Beeb and the international press give us the unvarnished truth?
– I am baffled by anyone who reads the papers, and lives in New York no less, and can honestly assert that the US media parrots Bush spin doctors. Yeah, that is why Bush loves the media so much because they spin everything just the way he wants them to; always noting when the economy experiences a boost, always interpreting the news in a positive light which reflects well on him, questioning the motives and assertions of his rivals. Yup, a veritable Bush love fest on every page!
– Maud’s assertion that “If Bush gets into the White House again, Iâ€™m not sure I can stay here” bugs me the most. Has it really gotten that bad folks? Has Maud become like a Hollywood actor threatening to leave if the election doesn’t go their way? I have never even conceptualized an idea like that in all my life. In fact I told my wife the other day that we shouldn’t get to emotional about politics, that if Kerry won life would go on and America would survive just fine. This kind of talk makes me depressed, it makes me think there is some kind of conceptual barrier between me and folks who think like this. How can I communicate and exchange ideas with a person who will leave the country if Bush is re-elected? It is hard to communicate when people can look at the world and see things so differently. I can handle people who think differently about politics but when it is stretched to a certain point, it seems beyond rational differences. Perhaps this is the divided Maud was talking about between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.
All of the politics aside, however, what did any of that have to do with writing or fiction? It seems to me that it was simply emotional bonding over shared politics and worldview. It didn’t add anything to the over-all discussion or theme of the interview in my mind. I guess it helps me understand where the author is coming from but couldn’t I just get that from her articles?
Perhaps, my own expectations are to blame. I was really hoping for an intelligent discussion about the role of faith in fiction and the way writers approach issues of religion and faith. If I wanted rants about the US media or about the terrible policies of our current president I would read the Nation or Salon. Maybe a Kerry win would have a silver lining: at least I wouldn’t have to wade through all this Bush bashing nonsense.