Elif Shafak’s Essay ‘Why The Novel Matters In The Age of Anger’

Elif Shafak with a novel essay

I believe kids these days would put it like this: this article is giving me life rn.

It certainly jarred some life in and out of me. Wow. Just wow.

I read it without knowing who the author was (I’ll get to that) and was immediately taken with the essay’s words. It, as the title suggests, deals with writing and the purpose of writers and their work, but it’s as much also about life at this time in history. Life in this world—not in a small way, in a big, big way. And whether you think we’re in the ‘age of anger’ or not, it has some undeniable proclamations. Take this:

We have plenty of “information” – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is “knowledge”, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time. “Wisdom” is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence….Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility.

Where the writer comes in here is a quasi-antidote, quasi-burdensome state. Shafak goes on about the purpose of a writer, but also the responsibility. And not just the writer, to readers who stand behind these writers and read despite the times.

But let’s get back to the writer. Because she is unbelievably accomplished. I felt silly gushing over her words, reading it the first time like it was some amateur’s essay.

Here’s her wiki page:

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Again, wow.

So, what does she have to say about the novel in the age of anger. A lot. And you should read the full essay. I’ll post just a few favorite parts of it:

Here is where the novelist must speak up. For writers, there is no “us” and there is no “them”. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible……The novel matters because it punches little holes in the wall of indifference that surrounds us. Novels have to swim against the tide. And this was never more clear than it is today.

Novelists need to speak up about the dangers of losing our core values: pluralism, freedom of speech, minority rights, separation of powers, democracy. Benjamin believed storytelling had to turn information into wisdom. Today a bigger challenge awaits writers: how to turn misinformation into wisdom.

What does all this mean?

Well it’s quite personal for me as I’ve set out to write my first novel. And I think about WHY I’m writing the story I’m writing and what I’m adding to a conversation in this age. I have these answers (I’ve explored some on the blog for that novel here)—but there’s a bit of an outrage to Shafak’s essay that resonated with me that has nothing to do with my novel. Something that deals with the revolutionary-ness of our time. My novel attempts to humanize some who have been de-humanized, but the characters (mostly white, mostly middle-class or above) are not the ones being most de-humanized in today’s world. Not even close.

So there’s still that resonating in me that my work isn’t solving. So I think about where else to explore these thoughts. My other places of recording thoughts and broadcasting.

And here’s one thing I’ll note in relation to all of this: I haven’t posted anything political in nearly two years.

By political I don’t necessarily mean our political system, but I’m using it here as an descriptor in which an article provides an opinion and then uses itself as a method of convincing a reader that that opinion is correct.

Why the wait? Why nothing after two years? Well, I’ve been trying to do more listening. More questions, less talking. I’ve been writing, just not posting. Not finishing with answers, but prompting questions with new questions.

I might be ready to share some of that but that remains to be seen. The first priority is listening to the wonder that Elif Shafak espoused, and working on my novel.

As she put aptly in her essay:

A writer’s job is not to try to provide the answers. It is neither to preach nor to teach; just the opposite. A writer must be a student of life, and not the best student either, since we must never graduate from this school, but keep asking the most simple, the most fundamental and the most difficult questions. In the end, we leave the answers to the readers.

So perhaps there will be more from here. Perhaps not. Either way, I’m proud to be working on my writing in this time and age. It is my skill and my best way to explore questions as I work on being my own “student of life”.

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