Writers, it turns out, are aliens.

‘All writers are Martians,’ according to Martin Amis. ‘They come and say, You haven’t been seeing this place right; it’s not like that, it’s like this.’ Nobel laureate and novelist Doris Lessing makes the same point (in gentler terms) in her book Prisons We Choose to Live Inside:

Writers are by nature more able to achieve this detachment from mass emotions and social conditions. People who are continually examining and observing become critics of what they examine and observe… Novelists perform many useful tasks for their fellow citizens, but one of the most valuable is this: to enable us to see ourselves as others see us.

The point is this: writers possess a unique perspective. Both Amis and Lessing are, presumably, advocating that writers incorporate their understanding of the world into their poems and stories. Given that writers examine and critique the world by necessity (or by habit, or by inclination), do they have an obligation to critique power structures without recourse to fictional representations? Do they have a role in shaping political narratives and public discourse? What are they saying, for example, about terrorism?


Marilynne Robinson

In her recent essay ‘Fear’, novelist (and studious Christian) Marilynne Robinson offers her perspective on the terror situation that currently dominates the US psyche (and, to some extent, that of all Western nations). Robinson patiently, graciously and piously tells contemporary America that it is, quite fundamentally, doing Christianity wrong. Americans should not be afraid; in fact, fear is un-American: ‘America is a Christian country… fear is not a Christian habit of mind.’ The attitude of the essay brings to mind Salman Rushdie’s advice on the same topic: ‘How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.’

Robinson’s essay has been generally well received, as much for its eloquence as for its argument. Its determinedly Christian ethos (the essay is studded with heavy-hitting biblical quotes serving as de facto proof) might give pause to non-US, non-Christian readers. However, Robinson is writing for her fellow Americans, around 90% of whom believe in God, and who, according to recent research, are ‘less likely to vote for an atheist than any other type of candidate, including ones who have never held office, have had extramarital affairs, are in their 70s or are gay.’ A line of reasoning claiming that US problems with fear, terror and guns result from the misalignment of religious fervour is likely to hit home. As both a respected novelist and respected Christian, Robinson’s contribution seems appropriate, worthy, and satisfyingly (but not too) challenging.

But there’s a problem: The essay might just be too… writerly. Her text has a delicate complexity that takes time to digest and comprehend. Robinson cannot resist leaping on a writer’s favourite prey – irony – by pointing out that America’s furious appetite for assault rifles is improving the economies of scale for Russian weapons manufacturers, which in turn is helping to inexpensively arm the very organisations Americans are arming themselves against. It’s a complex, global, economic irony, likely to be lost on or irrelevant to someone who craves the hollow security of a big gun. She claims that America, lost in its fear-laden off-shoot of Christianity, thrives on ‘make-believe wars against make-believe enemies’ (we hear, in the background, a single-line paragraph of Doris Lessing’s: ‘Ah yes, the enemy…’). In doing so, Robinson risks alienating precisely those people she would wish to embrace – those who feel only too keenly that the ‘enemy’ is real, and on their porch momentarily about to kick in the door.

Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the issue of terrorism in the Guardian also labours under its own writerliness. Atwood opens by quoting William Blake, John Milton, and Shakespeare (the holy trinity for aficionados of canonical literature). She then, logically but still disconcertingly, quotes herself from The Handmaid’s Tale. Decorum aside, Atwood’s argument, that Western nations are too willing to give up their freedoms in the name of security, is thoroughly convincing: cue much head-nodding and sharing across progressive social media platforms with the caption ‘This’. She echoes Hermann Hesse (like Doris Lessing, a Nobel Laureate in Literature) in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, when he wrote, a little condescendingly, ‘The bourgeois prefers comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to the deathly inner consuming fire.’ Quite so, and never more so than now. At this moment in history, it at times seems almost alien, almost other-worldly, to advocate for freedom, to resist the rhetoric of fear.


Eleanor Catton

As aliens, writers experience a strange duality. In one existence their opinions, often contrary to the public mood and wrapped in considered and thoughtful writerly discourse, are left floating in the ether, more or less ignored by the intended audience. In another, they are quickly recognised and systematically suppressed. As Lessing says, writers turn a mirror on society, and ‘are distrusted for precisely this reason’ by those in power. When Booker Prize-winning New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton criticized the neoliberal tendencies of her country’s government while at the 2015 Jaipur Literary Festival, Prime Minister John Key said of Catton, ‘She has no particular great insights into politics, she is a fictional writer [sic].’ The ethos of his statement (paraphrased: stick to your knitting) is distinctly contrary to the wisdom that writers have perceptive insights to offer on such matters; Key’s statement was simultaneously an effort to discredit and to silence.

Ursula Le Guin faced a similar but subtler form of dismissal following her criticism of the media’s coverage of the recent terrorist take-over at an Oregon wildlife refuge. Reporting on Le Guin’s comments, the Guardian found it necessary to describe her as an ‘outspoken novelist’, as if the combination of being outspoken and a novelist was itself noteworthy, and perhaps a little inappropriate (is the word ‘outspoken’ ever uttered without a knowingly lifted eyebrow, particularly in reference to women?). The article then went on to catalogue other examples of her outspokenness, all unrelated to the issue she was addressing. Ultimately, the Guardian’s story focused less on the content of Le Guin’s critique, and more on her supposedly weird compulsion to comment on important issues. (It might be that Le Guin drew this sort of attention by presenting her critique in less writerly terms: she described the occupying terrorists as ‘a flock of Right-Wing Loonybirds.’) A tweet promoting the Guardian article drew a predictable response, similar in tone to John Key’s response to Eleanor Catton, but this time offered by a random Twitter user: ‘@GuardianBooks And she’s an expert because????? Stick to writing fantasy, Le Guin.’

@GuardianBooks And she’s an expert because????? Stick to writing fantasy, Le Guin.
— Ferdinand Berthoud (@SwissArmy1984) January 21, 2016

It could have been written by a trolling bot, except a bot would not have forgotten (or been too lazy or timid) to @ the novelist directly, and would certainly have used fewer question marks.

As Eleanor Catton showed, it is not only terror that compels writers to offer public comment (although insidious, almost casual neoliberalism is terrifying in its own way). Last week, 61 Australian writers penned an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton regarding the ‘brutal’ and ‘shameful’ treatment of asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention facilities. This letter has been met by a strange combination of silence and silencing from the Australian government. While the signatories charged the government with the routine use of cruelty and a ‘disregard for human dignity’, Dutton responded ‘Nobody is being held in detention on Nauru’ – an avoidance of the issue at hand and a slippery sidestep that redirects the discourse away from uncomfortable topics. In addition to this disconcerting silence by omission, there has been a silencing: one that, again, targets the legitimacy of writers to speak out on such issues. Dutton spoke of the open letter (a considered protest informed by third-party research and first-hand testimony) as if it were a whinge based on emotion rather than reason and evidence: ‘There’s obviously a lot of emotion around this issue at the moment… that’s understandable because it is a very emotional space.’ These words resonate with patronising patience, they are punctuated with weary, paternalistic sighs. Dutton’s subtext, of course, is that this group of writers has no valid insights to offer.

As tempting as pessimism might be, there is reason for hope. It is heartening to see the US government making use of the ‘wild imaginations’ of writers. The Department of Homeland Security has formed the so-called Sigma group, which brings together sci-fi writers (although only those with ‘at least one technical doctorate degree’) to contribute to the efforts against terrorism. Although the role of the writers in this initiative is to discuss futuristic paradigms rather than provide societal critique, the recognition of their ‘crazy ideas’ is something to celebrate.

Even more encouraging is the meeting between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson that took place in September 2015. In their conversation they touched on Robinson’s essay ‘Fear’, although they did not delve entirely into its specifics and intricacies. Formal, political acknowledgement of this sort recognises the valid, informed and relevant critiques offered by writers, acknowledging their utility and aiding wider political discourse.