Transcript of keynote speech to the first New Zealand National Writers’ Forum – Chris Cleave – 17th Sept 2016
I’m excited to be here at the start of something tremendous: the first National Writers’ Forum for a country internationally renowned for its writing. New Zealand punches way above its weight in literature. You change the landscape, you bring out your big guns, you win the Man Booker Prize. And this National Writers’ Forum is to deepen the foundations of that strength, to develop new talent faster.
This is a space for writers and publishers and book people to meet and support each other because – guess what – it’s a long game, and some years the dice will roll for you and other years they’ll get stuck in the cup, and so we must love and support one another.
I want to thank the New Zealand Society of Authors for helping to bring me here – I heard Joan Rosier-Jones’s lecture last night and I was astonished at the range of support available for writers here – you’re in very good hands, I think. Thanks to all the sponsors of this weekend – Creative New Zealand, Copyright Licensing New Zealand, South Pacific Pictures, Kobo, Lowndes Jordan and Time Out Bookstore. Their generosity and forward thinking is the reason we can all be here, and we can applaud them from the heart.
Thanks to the University of Auckland for hosting us. Thanks to my publishers, the wonderful Hachette, who have supported my writing from the get-go. And last but not least, thanks to the organisers of this National Writers’ Forum – thank you especially to Claire Mabey – and also Andrew Laking – both of them were kind enough to come to one of my events in the UK and I suppose they can’t have hated it too much.
One of the nice things about living in London, where I am with my wife and children, is that you do meet a lot of great New Zealanders. I used to assume that you people couldn’t all be so terrific. I thought that maybe you had some kind of quality control procedure before a New Zealander was allowed to leave the country and be seen, overseas, by foreigners like me. Perhaps you had to present yourself to an emigration official at Auckland airport, and do five minute show – maybe a tap routine or a hundred one-armed pushups – to prove that you were terrific. Otherwise how was it explicable that I never meet a bad New Zealander in London?
And then I came on tour here – I’ve been over a few times now – and I learned that the truth is much more straightforward. I’ve travelled all over both your islands – by the way, I like that you named them so imaginatively. I can tell you’re a nation of wordsmiths.
I’ve travelled all over both your islands and I’ve talked with people in bookstores in towns like Matakana, through to great festivals like Christchurch, via all kinds of hospitable and diverse communities like Nelson and Hamilton and Dunedin, and I’ve still never met a New Zealander who wasn’t charming. And so finally I asked about it and one of the festival organisers explained it to me. She said, “Oh, it’s really simple, we just send all the bad apples to Australia.”
Well, I know the Australia thing isn’t entirely serious but you do have an entirely great country, and a very senior person at Whitcoulls yesterday made me promise not to write a word about it, so that the rest of the world won’t notice what a neat thing you have going on. But, well, you do keep writing about it – and I have to say that you keep doing these things that are extremely inconvenient to me personally (did I mention winning the Man Booker Prize, more than once?) and yet however envious I am of your country, and jealous of the success of your writers, I can’t find it in my heart to hate you.
We live in an age where hate is on the rise. The last time the world looked the way it does now, the last time demagogues could incite people to hatred and fear and be elected for it, rather than jailed for it, was in the 1930s. And our parents’ and grandparents’ generation fought against that hate, and they won. New Zealand, America, Britain, France, Australia, Canada and the rest – there was a grand alliance against evil, and that alliance prevailed.
Well, now the evil is back, and as part of the literary community, all of us in this room are going to find ourselves involved in dealing with it. Some of us might find ourselves on the other side – I make no presumptions, and god knows the other side is seductive. In France, in Germany, in Austria and Poland and Greece, the hard right is resurgent.
In my own country, since June this year, there has been a startling takeover by a right wing cabal who won a referendum by invoking the language and imagery of the extreme right. I’m certainly not saying that the people who voted for Brexit are evil, but the leaders who lied to get that result certainly are.
Meanwhile, wars fought over ideologies have produced refugees by the million. Everywhere you look, people are talking about building walls again, and putting up razor wire. In only 51 days, in America, we get to find out whether fear has prevailed there too.
Let’s not delude ourselves by imagining this is an evil that cares what we writers think of it. It is a strutting and chauvinistic evil, and it mocks our careful craft. Donald Trump put it best when he put it thus: “You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
I’ll just leave that out there for you.
This kind of evil does not listen to reason, does not acknowledge science, does not defer to expertise or experience, does not doubt its own convictions, does not read books. And this is the world we writers are working in now. We who grew up to cherish empathy and compassion and beauty and precision. We who learned, over thousands of meticulous hours, to encode those things not just into our plots and our pages and our paragraphs, but into every careful sentence.
We learned to respect the reader, didn’t we? To give them a little space to think and to dream. We learned to acknowledge that people might come to our pages with a bigger life than our own. We learned to be humble and to use tiny little things, like commas, to give readers a great big thing, like, a pause, for breath.
But we write in a breathless world now. Furious reaction follows outrageous event without a moment for reflection. By the time any of us can write a thousand considered words about a thing, the agenda has long moved on. In this climate reason is redundant, beauty skin deep, memory obsolete. And so hate becomes the dominant voice simply because hate takes far less time to express.
This year I published a book about love, and by no means all of love, just the very beginning of people finding each other and trying to make that subtle thing work under difficult conditions, and I stripped that book down to the absolute minimum and I still needed four years and 140 thousand words. But you can do hate in ten seconds and under 140 characters. Hate is so much more readily compressible. Hate is the .zip file of emotions – it’s incredibly efficient. Hate is a message perfectly adapted to the new medium.
What has happened is that the world to which we dedicated our slow and patient craft has undergone a sudden and startling temporal acceleration. The clocks, as Orwell put it, are striking thirteen, and we have to ask ourselves what a writer can usefully do in a world where it’s suddenly thirteen o’clock. Because the only legitimacy we have as writers is that we exercise a craft that is socially useful.
If we no longer believe that we are useful in this accelerated society, then any other writerly questions – How do I get published? How do I sell more books? How do I stop my cat chasing my fingers when I’m typing? – all those other writerly questions are irrelevant, because if I don’t believe in my heart that my writing is socially useful, then my writing will wither and shrivel up.
It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Now, I’m not someone who unequivocally reveres Orwell. I liked it when our colleague Alan Moore said, “Orwell thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother.” That’s funny, and sort of true of course, but I’m sure Alan Moore intended it pithily and he wouldn’t mind if I said that it’s only half the truth.
1984 is worth reading again, if you haven’t done so for a while. What you may notice, reading it now, is not so much Orwell’s structures of social control – those systems that we have learned to call Orwellian – but the flashes of emotional insight with which the author invests his protagonist.
If you put Orwell’s words into the context of a Trump rally, or a Brexit speech, or a storm of righteous outrage on Twitter, they seem startlingly modern. Here’s what Orwell writes:
“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
He could be talking about today, couldn’t he? Rage is the sudden and surprising and defining emotion of our era, and its most frightening aspect is that it has no greater agenda than to continually feed itself.
The flame of hatred, as Orwell describes it, moves promiscuously from one object to another. This is why each of Trump’s pronouncements, for example, has to be more incendiary than the last – because hate is like any other fix: humans get habituated and so the dose must be increased. Hate does not cool down when it gets what it wants, because hate doesn’t want anything except the next instalment of hate.
And so hate hates Mexicans, then women, then Moslems, then the European Union, then Obama, then gun control, then me, then you. But you could give hate the exact things it was screaming for – and you could annihilate all those things that hate hates – and hate would just hate you for doing it.
That’s why hate is dangerous – because it can never stop. It’s a shark and it drowns if it ever stops swimming. Britain isn’t in trouble because of Brexit. Britain is in trouble because its leaders released hate in order to get Brexit, and now hate is in the tank with us, and swimming.
The world isn’t in trouble because of Donald Trump personally. Donald Trump isn’t actually bright enough to be that kind of evil mastermind. Hate is just wearing that man like a glove. Because he’s an easy man for hate to wear in these times. He’s a man who is never going to have a train of thought that can’t be expressed in 140 characters, and so hate is taking Donald Trump for a swim. And hate will cheerfully eat all of us, and it won’t even spare Donald Trump. Hate ate him first of all, truth be told, and hate is just wearing his face. He’s as much of a victim in this as we all are, which I’m sure he’d hate me for saying.
Well then, what’s the cure for hate? How can we as writers make ourselves useful in this changed landscape? What does all this mean here, and now, for this community of writers operating out of New Zealand, in simple and practical terms?
I have five ideas to suggest to you, and I’m expecting to learn a lot more by listening to all of you this weekend. Here in this forum there is such a depth of integrity and experience. Patricia Grace is with us. Nalini Singh is going to talk about the role of a writer today. Tusiata Avia will speak about the writer’s job as one of bringing the unseen into the world. Kate Pullinger will talk about the changes in the medium itself. I could go on and on – there are too many good writers here to mention.
The only thing I bring to this party, I think, is the fact that I have very recently come through the incredible shock of my own country going through the temporal acceleration we’ve spoken of, and I’m still wide awake with how that feels, and I hope my perspective is useful to you.
So, my first very practical suggestion, for how we as writers can make ourselves useful in these new times, is that we should make sure we stand for something, rather than against everyone else.
A positive example for writers is the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in America and is now reaching out all over the world. Black Lives Matter is not a hate movement, and I know that because I’ve been reading its writers and they make sense. We can learn from them. Black Lives Matter is a rational argument and it will be satisfied when – and only when – America, and the whole world for that matter, starts acting as if black lives matter. And then – for all I know – there might be no further need for the movement. It’s not hate, because it knows how to stop. Black Lives Matter is an eloquent and reasonable proposition, and it wants one particular thing that it is well defined and consistently articulated, and it has a lot of gifted writers in its service. That’s one example of how writers can use their talents constructively in these hate-fuelled times.
My second practical suggestion is to stay open and curious in spirit. Something big in the New Zealand psyche is that it explores its own diverse cultures while still managing to direct curiosity outwards, over the ocean. For example, I’ve always admired your concept of the Overseas Experience, or OE.
Now you’ll already be aware that my own country, which once rather insisted on its right to move freely over the earth, has begun to feel that the free movement of people is a bad thing, and it’s pulling up the drawbridge and insisting that many of its problems come from foreigners, coming to Britain and taking British jobs.
A dozen years ago in London I met a New Zealand dentist, after my tooth had got infected and two British dentists had ummed and ahhhed and put off doing anything about it. And this new dentist, originally from Auckland, took one look in my mouth and said: “Oh yeah, I reckon if we act fast I can probably save your jaw.” And she did. Typical immigrant, really – coming to our country, saving our facial bones.
This dentist told me that she had originally come to England on OE – I didn’t know, back then, so I asked what it was. “Oh,” she said, “OE stands for Outrageous Ending. We all do it. We go abroad, spend a couple of years, and there’s a competition to see who can end the trip most dramatically. There are regional heats and then a national final that’s televised on TVNZ.”
Which brings me to suggestion number three: as writers, we should keep our sense of humour. The antidote to hate probably isn’t love, it’s probably laughter. And book people are pretty useful for that.
When I was in Melbourne last week I mentioned that I was going out for a walk in the city’s ornamental gardens, so my publisher said, “Fine, but just be bloody careful of the drop bears.” Drop bears, in case you don’t know, are urban koalas that have learned to attack humans. They wait until you walk under their gum tree and then they drop down on you and they can give you a really nasty bite. So naturally I gave every eucalypt a wide berth until I thought… hang on.
You do start to get wise to these stories people tell to strangers. When I flew from Melbourne to Adelaide the next day, a bookseller told me I should put my watch to the local time, which was 30 minutes behind. Well you can’t fool me twice – I mean, “drop bears” are one thing, but Australians are an intelligent and pragmatic people and there is no way they would invent something as wilfully problematic as a half time zone, right? So I got the joke this time, and I left my watch where it was, and that’s why I showed up for my first interview half-an-hour early.
This thing is, you can tell a stranger a story – and in fact, as a writer, that’s your only job. It comes with responsibilities and it comes with accountability, but essentially when you are the writer and I am the reader I come to your pages with a joyful naivety, and you can tell me that you’d like to be called Ishmael, or that the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel, or that Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself – you can tell me those things & I will believe you.
More precisely, if you do your job with skill and humility, then I as a worldly and grown-up and widely-read reader might wilfully suspend my disbelief. You have my trust and you can, and you must, take me on a journey that I would never have embarked on by myself – and that journey may very well change my mind forever. Even after your characters’ voices have faded, if those voices led me – the reader – to discover for myself an emotional truth, then that emotional truth will endure.
That’s why people sometimes cry at the end of good books.
And so this is my fourth very practical suggestion: in a world that suddenly won’t listen to science or reason, won’t follow an argument with multiple steps, and won’t acknowledge statistical fact, tell people a story instead. Believe it or not – and it’s hardly an ideal state of affairs – but storytellers are now the most powerful opinion formers we have. Use the power humbly and with reverence for accuracy and truth, but use it. Use the power while welcoming and actively soliciting people’s right to reply with stories of their own, but own it. Use your gift of empathy and subtlety to tell the gentler human story, in fiction or non-, to soften this world’s hardening hearts.
My fifth and final suggestion follows on from that, I think, and it’s one that is often overlooked by the writing community. My suggestion is to cherish one another. Gandhi, who was a prolific writer himself of course, gave us the advice that we should be the change we wished to see in the world. You’re not that change if you’re trashing another writer’s work just to make your own name heard. That’s something we might reserve for a private letter, not a public review. Let’s criticise each other to each other’s face before anything else, and try to do so with love.
If it helps, when writing a review, my rule of thumb is always to benchmark a fellow writer’s novel against cluster munitions, rather than against the work of Marcel Proust. However bad a book is, it’s honestly not as bad as shrapnel – although you’d never know it from the tone of half the reviews you read these days. And more and more, the most disingenuous reviews are written not by professional critics but by our own fellow writers. So let’s not go there. Let’s cherish each other’s work, and help each other out with shoulders to cry on and sofas to crash on, cash loans in the hard times, and raised glasses in the good.
That way we can learn from each other, as we will over the weekend of this forum. And that way we can also learn a habit of mind that will affect the way we write, and make our stories part of the solution. When we do what we as writers can do at our best – which is to make our egos small and our eyes and ears big – then a particular gravity accrues to our work. That gravity draws readers out of the new superfast, event-reaction cycle in which only hate is quick enough to win, and into our own more thoughtful worlds – our storied worlds – where subtlety and complexity and precision and patience are restored to their rightful place.
In other words, when we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us. Because people are not bad. And whoever they vote for, they’re certainly not stupid. It’s just that evil is too quick for us. People are mostly good, but they have day jobs and money worries and health problems just like we all do, and all of that stuff makes us slow, relative to the hatemongers who rush to fill our thoughts.
And so, as writers at 13 o’clock, we have the same craft, the same legitimacy, the same useful social purpose we always did. We must still learn to be humble, and still use tiny little things, like commas, to give readers a great big thing, like, a pause, for breath.
This forum is our own pause for breath and it’s been an honour to address it. I’m looking forward to learning from all of you – I’m sure you’re as excited as I am about this weekend we’re about to have – and so without further fuss I will let you get on with enjoying it. Thank you for your kind attention, and thank you again to all of the visionary organisers and generous sponsors and hardworking volunteers and fellow participants of this first New Zealand National Writers’ Forum – long may it continue.