Why Write About Unimportant People? – Part 1

Here’s where I am.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a lecture for the MA students at Birkbeck. It was one of a series. Previously, there had been ‘Sensibility’ and subsequently there was ‘Sympathetic Central Characters’. But this time it was ‘Souls’.

The main writers I talked about were D.H.Lawrence and Saul Bellow – neither of them  fashionable, and neither of them often mentioned by the students themselves.

Why was it, I asked, that – after long consideration – I had concluded that Lawrence and Bellow mattered to me more than other writers that the students do mention. J.G.Ballard, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Jennifer Egan.

I said, ‘Both Lawrence and Bellow seem, to many critics, to have got the human subject completely wrong; to have engaged with a nostalgic or wishful version of what we essentially are. We are not Souls, we are the current technologies of the self. Both Lawrence and Bellow have, in their fiction and in their critical writings, made Souls more material than they can possibly be.’

This isn’t what I want to write about here, but it’s near to the start point. And that point is the question, ‘Why do we think it is worth writing about individual characters in their individual situations?’ Or, to put it another why, ‘What is it about reading about unimportant people that readers find so important?’

To writers in many other civilizations, the domestic doings of the unpowerful and unbeautiful would have seemed less than a subject. The assumptions of realist fiction, and particularly of realist short stories, would seem bizarre to them. Why are you not writing about heroes? Or gods? (Humanist answer: All people are important.)

This is not just another opportunity to have a go at realism. Instead, I’d like to ask the dumb question, and see what kind of answer I can come up with.

Because, in rereading Lawrence, it seemed to me that he – at least for Women in Love – had a very good answer. The reason that we are interested in Ursula and Gudrun Birkin and Gerald is that they are pioneers of the soul. They are attempting something new in human relations. At certain points, this becomes almost science fictional.

‘And what will happen when you find yourself in space?’ [Gudrun] cried in derision. ‘After all, the great ideas of the world are the same there. You above everybody can’t get away from the fact that love, for instance, is the supreme thing, in space as well as on earth.’

‘No,’ said Ursual, ‘it isn’t. Love is too human and little. I believe in something inhuman, of which love is only a little part. I believe what we must fulfil comes out of the unknown to us, and it is something infinitely more than love. It isn’t so merely HUMAN.’

Distain of the human is partly what I’m getting at. Doesn’t even realist fiction often rely on an encounter with the inhuman? Isn’t that the point of epiphany stories, that they flick the lightswitch of the beyond?

Bellow, I think, is on another track – perhaps a parallel track. Herzog is another pioneer. He’s going on a voyage to the far interior. He’s far more solipsistic, despite all the wives. And his credos, just as plainly put, are in letters that the recipients will file under INSANE. Yet we know Herzog is passionately sincere and, probably, a long way out in front of us.

There are things to be learned from the characters in Women in Love and Herzog that I don’t believe are there to be learned from those in Crash or What we talk about when we talk about love. Maybe I’m saying that these other writers are more metaphysically coy. Yet it’s the metaphysical engagement that puts so many readers off Lawrence and Bellow. They want that kind of stuff out of sight. Or just coming through the window into the kitchen, in a symbolic beam of brightness.

I can’t help feeling that, when our civilization has changed away from where it is, that there will be some puzzlement at this shyness. Avoidance of the big questions isn’t negation of them.

And to have stories that appear to be socially delimited but are actually transcendentally dependent is confused, if not hypocritical.


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