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I strongly suggest you GO GET SOME CULTURE. Seriously.

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

On a recommendation (and frankly being completely unable to resist the title) I’ve been reading Martin Amis’ collection of literary reviews: ‘The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000’.


Immediately I was arrested by his review of books centered on maleness, one of which ‘Iron John’ (a work of fiction) he claims, “has transformed male consciousness.”


I quote the cultural statement that stopped me in my tracks: “Being more or less unembarrassable, Americans are fatally attracted to the embarrassing: they have an anti-talent for it (the Oscars, the primaries, the hearings, the trials, Shirley Temple, Clarence Thomas, Andrea Dworkin, Al Sharpton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Swaggart).


Hang on, I thought, isn’t this just a book review? How come he’s throwing stones at American culture (and what right does he have, it’s not like the British don’t have plenty to be embarrassed about too!) The sheer cheek of it! Let him go back to his cup of tea and eat a Cornish pastie.


But the more I thought about it, the more I felt he was pointing out something important for writers: what we write is a product of our culture, can say something about our culture, and maybe even can do something to change our culture.


I processed this thought with my own writing: what had I been trying to do with ‘The Theory of My Wonders’? Anything there to do with culture?


I had wanted to write about human suffering, within what I designed as essentially a utopian world – richer than ours, more peaceful, less sickness. Because even within Utopia, there’s inevitably inequality, and with inequality comes the marginalization of the disadvantaged. In the real world, I had rejected socialism as unworkable, and that a UBI (Universal Basic Income) would only help those at the bottom of the ladder not fall off it in tough times. It left me with the conclusion that something very different was needed. ‘Theory’ was an exploration of that: the premise that to “save the world” required individuals to embrace love and charity for others, and to inspire hope in others – even at great personal cost. Moreover, I wanted to consider whether people want to change, are able to change. More directly, I was asking myself whether love and charity actually do any good in the world?


But, being honest here, when I was writing ‘Theory’ I didn’t have well-ordered thoughts in my head, such as, “I’m going to write a story (a fable?) about what’s needed to achieve social and economic justice in our lifetimes.” I was rummaging around in a set of emotions and concepts, trying to write a tale that someone might possibly read. Maybe that was my mistake; I ended up with a muddle of thoughts and notions, nothing more than a fever-dream philosophy.


It’s possible your reaction right now is to reject having some cultural critique, or idea, inform your work: “Hey, I’m just writing a story here!”


Yeah, right, I don’t think so.

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Oh, I thought you were going to say I should go spend the afternoon at a gallery!

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