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Why We Write
Jennifer Yang on an encounter with an Orwell Prize-winning novelist
Walking in the streets of London where my heroes – Woolf, Dickens, Thomas, Orwell – once trod, I was overcome by long-awaited waves of excitement. A few months ago, I stopped believing in the power of written words as I saw dystopias coming to life in all corners of the world. Staring at those old, canonical, must-read texts piling up ceaselessly in my stuffy room, I felt as if I had lost my appetite for a once-loved childhood dish - words no longer excited me.
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I decided to turn away from these mute papers; I began counting down the days until I would meet Ali Smith, whose dazzling Summer I had relished for its clever word play charged with political connotations. Reading Summer during my five-hour train ride was as if I had inhaled a lungful of the lush summer air. Ali Smith is the bestselling author of many works of fiction, such as Hotel World (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize) and How to be Both (which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). Summer is the last novel of the Seasonal Quartet (the others being Autumn, Winter, and Spring), and won The Orwell Prize for Fiction in 2021.
The event, which took the form of a conversation between Ali Smith and her partner, Sarah Wood, was called ‘Why I Write’, based on George Orwell’s essay which bears the same name, and was taking place as part of the new Orwell Festival of Political Writing. In Orwell’s essay, there was a quotation that caught my attention:
“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”
Aestheticism and purpose in writing had always seemed nearly irreconcilable in my opinion. If a piece is too florid, too much of a purple passage, then it becomes dull and uninspiring. On the other hand, if it is too factual, too focused on a particular period, then it becomes an everyday news article which quickly loses its fleeting significance. To harmonise the two is an exceedingly difficult task, as it is necessary for writers of timeless literature to place their work within a particular time frame, and to consider the universality of their works for years to come. This dilemma is also at the centre of our revision of the canon in the literary world - what political morals still appeal to us? What kind of language achieves that task so brilliantly as to make us breathless even after hundreds of years?
The lecture began with Sarah Wood’s ‘film’ (according to her, it was less than a film but more than a video), narrated by Ali Smith. It is made up of various vignettes, fragments of familiar news from our daily lives, but newly narrated. The ‘film’ showed me that, in our time, we are consistently seeing events around the world through cameras; that begs the question – since cameras, in many ways, could be sufficient in doing the basic job of documenting events around us, what role does writing hold now?
Ali Smith had an answer. ‘Novel form is about society’, she said, ‘a revelation about where we are. Whilst history disappears, arts make us present.’ Whilst I was not too sure about whether history disappears, as our interpretations of historical events are always up for revision, the simple four words, ‘arts make us present’ came to me as a revelation. Indeed, the first few pages of Summer, thoroughly analysing the political duty that everyone holds, had agitated me so much I started to sneer at my own indifference. Since reading it, I have started to scrutinise newspaper headlines, I started to care a bit more. Arts can have this ripple effect on all of us, just as Smith said: ‘Literature is about itself, ourselves, and what’s beyond ourselves.’
But I was still sceptical. In our classrooms we do discuss literature passionately, we do share the joys and fears with individuals from various centuries, perhaps quite uncannily, but in what way has literature changed me as a person?
Trembling, I asked, ‘What can writing change?’ It was a direct challenge to the writer. Before I could elaborate, Smith asserted, ‘Shelley once said, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In our infinitely-difficult-to-get-to-the-truth-time, political fiction represents a higher truth. Remember the time when you read your favourite book from start to finish? That’s when a piece of writing changed you - when you realise it has become a part of you.’
Last autumn, I wrote another piece reflecting on Ian McEwan’s Orwell Memorial Lecture on Politics and the Imagination. In contrast to McEwan’s exploration of how pessimism can sometimes be useful, even ‘liberating’ for the writer, Smith’s hope for a better future surprised me. Amidst the current proliferation of frightening world news, alongside my love of tragedies and miserable novels, I sometimes lose my sense of hope for a better world.
I ascended the stairs from the lecture hall with glee. The world seemed all the brighter. A week later at the Orwell Prize Ceremony, as I sold the Orwell Youth Fellows’ carefully-curated zine Axial Tilt to established journalists and writers and literary workers who were so willing to hear our small voices, I felt, for the first time in a few months, that my old self was back, and that lost soul had finally found its voice. True art makes us present, and it is only through engaging with what is beyond ourselves that we can escape from that incredibly small, stuffy room of our own and embrace the world. Literature is not all about reading, it is also about living, voicing opinions, engaging with the buzzing world, and ‘that’s how’, says Ali Smith, ‘I think we know we are not dead’.