Fiction, Morality and Nutella

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Among my many and varied ponderings this week, the most pressing has been on the interplay between fiction writing and morality. If this sounds pretentious (and, lawks-a-Lordy, I think it just might) then it's worth noting, briefly, that I'm on holiday in a converted bread oven in the Loire Valley, and my other wide-eyed ponderings have been: Jeez, this is quite a small house but it must have been a really huge stove; wow, I never knew menhirs actually existed outside of those Asterix books; and, mmm, Nutella.


Anyhow: fiction writing and morality it is. In the past few weeks this topic has been much in the news. We've seen Irvine Welsh accused of misogyny after penning a suspect sex scene in his latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Then there's been Gunter Grass's admission, in his autobiography, that, despite his renunciations of Germany's Nazi past (in his fiction and beyond), he was drafted as a teenager and served--without committing any war crimes--in the Waffen SS. This has prompted a host of questions, not least: "Why did he wait until now to reveal this?" (Dark mutterings suggest simply to sell more copies of his autobiography.) And how does this reflect on his writing? Can someone be seen as a moral arbiter if their past conceals such a dirty secret, especially one so implicitly related to the object of their ire?

In both cases, although they are different sides of the coin (Welsh is called a misogynist because of something he's written; Grass's writing is questioned because of something he's done) the fiction and the writer are understood to be in some sense continuous. This is neither surprising nor really inaccurate: of all the creative arts, fiction writing is probably the one in which the artist's personality, ideals and outlook are most explicitly expressed.

I am not suggesting that all novels are autobiographical, but rather that they are all ego-driven. To have a positive response to a blank page, a response that springs from your own imagination and can power along for at least 200 pages, demands an intense interest in exploring your own psyche and what you see in the world around you, as well as a conviction that your personality and thoughts are fascinating enough to compel others' interest. If that's not ego-driven, what is?

It is also true that fiction expresses an edited version of our outlook, and an idealised one. …