My first impulse in reading this essay by Henry Porter in The Observer was to take it as just another siren song about the need to combine art with politics, to toughen up the former by encouraging writers to tackle the "serious" issues of the day. It's a song that ought to be resisted, to be sure, but I was ultimately most struck by how thoroughly cacophonous Porter's version of the tune turns out to be. His argument really is quite astonishingly incoherent.
Porter begins by quoting a typically dull piece of prose written by a "policy expert" and suggests that commentary on current affairs might be more lively if it were in part written by real writers, "public intellectuals" and novelists or dramatists:
This may seem harsh, but where are the novelists with their indictments of government and society? Where are exposés of some unregarded part of the termite heap? Where are the dramatists who can barely speak for their anger? Harold Pinter opposed the war vociferously and David Hare wrote a terrific play about it called Stuff Happens, but there has been very little thinking outside that which isn't either controlled by or seeks the approval of the political parties.
It probably is true that the public discourse would be enlivened, its collective prose style invigorated, if such writers participated more regularly. However, it's really not very clear what Porter is asking them to do. It seems he wants them to "indict," "expose" and "speak," all of which are presumably forms of non-literary public expression. Yet he also endorses Hare for writing his anti-war play, and elsewhere he praises "engaged" novelists such as Nadine Gordimer and Orhan Parmuk. "This is not to say," he writes, "that writers should go on forced missions of social realism, give up their stylistic experiments or stop writing about themselves." Instead, they should be writing fiction that is as keyed to "issues" as certain TV dramas Porter evidently admires.
Novelists have just as much right to speak about public affairs as anyone else, and I have no problem with poets, fiction writers, or dramatists commenting on political and social issues outside of their work as poets, novelists, and dramatists. Indeed, their penchant for speaking forcefully and straightforwardly about such issues, free of the cant of media blowhards and the "professional" coating of putative experts, can sometimes be refreshing. However, if Porter is exhorting them to write more "political" works of literature, then he's asking them to abandon their art in favor of artistic cant and ill-concealed propaganda. I don't know why any novelist or poet would want to take Porter up on this offer. If political salience is the question--more rather than less--wouldn't it be more fruitful to speak directly about politics through essays, op-eds, and speeches than to distort one's "creative" work by bending it to the political winds?
But it's impossible to tell which approach Porter is truly advocating. On the one hand, "we desperately need the moral force of an independent-minded writer training his or her guns on a target that journalists may not have seen and politicians may not want us to see." This sounds like the writer as direct and unmediated "voice," the writer as citizen. On the other hand, Porter directs our attention to all the subjects that require "the urgent attention of a writer's sensibility." This sounds like political agitation filtered through the steadying perception of the novelist-at-work. Does Porter want "writers" to produce tracts, or creative works colored by politics? He doesn't really seem to know.
My biggest objection to the idea that writers should "say something" about current politics and social controversies is that I don't understand why they should be presumed to know anything in particular about these subjects. Ideally, what novelists and poets know is how to create compelling novels and poems. Their expertise should be in aesthetic invention. To assume that the writing of fiction and poetry is about intervening in public debates in most cases only warps and inhibits aesthetic invention. It encourages writers to be blowhards themselves rather than artists, fosters the perception that fiction or drama are just thinly-disguised varieties of polemic. I get enough partisan rhetoric in newspapers and magazines; I don't need any more in the fiction I read.