Saturday, 22 April 2017


'Weak argument  -  shout'

   Academic research has established what most of us have long realised - that in the business of opinion forming to assert lies with conviction is more effective than calmly telling the truth. Politicians do it. We had a plethora of bombastic misinformation in last year's USA presidential election and the British referendum debate. Tweeters do it, hence the concern over hate mail and fake news. Manufacturers do it by hyping their products. The rule that governs most marketing - whether of a political programme, a washing powder or a personal prejudice - is, 'Never mind the facts; deliver your message loudly and with conviction'.
   Professional writers are supposed to be immune to this sort of thing. We should value truth above all else. We should be able to tell our stories, whether fact or fiction, using imagination as a vehicle for truth and not an embellishment of it. We should avoid the hidden agenda. We should let the narrative speak for itself and, as far as humanly possible, not interpose ourselves between the text and the reader. In other words, we should not sacrifice substance to style. I suppose that, as a historian, I'm particularly sensitive on this issue. My training has established the basic rule that the writer starts with the existing source material, assessing its worth and building his/her narrative on all the facts that can be discovered, irrespective of whether or not they support his/her own sympathies. Good history writing, like all good biography, is 'warts an' all'. When I come across a book that is written to prove a point (or, more often, to disprove someone else's point) I'm instantly on my guard. But it's not only in the field of historical non-fiction that we need to avoid the 'weak argument - shout' approach to our work. A while back I read an internet apologia by someone who had written a novel about Anne Boleyn. Her attitude was 'historians have described Anne as a scheming woman but I don't think she was like that. So in my story I describe her as a brave and wise heroine'. In other words, 'Don't confuse me with facts; I know what I think'. We all, if we have any intelligence at all, are sensitive to truth and falsehood. When a book fails to convince us, we stop suspending our disbelief and, in all likelihood, set it aside without reading to the end.
   The above may seem like a counsel of perfection and - to some extent - it is. We all have our convictions and prejudices. They go into the mix of our personas and, inevitably, colour what we write. But that does not mean that we are free to ignore our obligation to truth - to take our eye off the substance of what we are writing and concentrate instead on how we can impress a publisher or a reader. This involves a high degree of self-discipline. We are not free to 'let it all hang out' - not if we expect to be taken seriously. Here is a simple catechism we could all do well to pose to ourselves every time we take up pen or keypad:

1.  Do I have an agenda? Am I trying to persuade people to think/believe as I do?
2. If the answer is 'Yes', am I presenting my argument fairly and intelligently, recognising that opposing points of view must be respected?
3.  If the answer is 'No', am I really sure I'm not using my plot, characters or presentation of facts as a means of writing a surreptitious sermon?
4.  Are my characters - real or imaginary - well rounded and believable. In real life there are very, very few complete heroes, heroines or villains.
5.  Am I using a style based on clever, fashionable or 'literary' stratagems to make a good impression and win the approval of readers?
6.  Am I prepared to undergo the mental and emotional stress of getting inside all my characters, so that I can, hand on heart, say that my objective is truth?

   As a writer I am privileged to convey my thoughts directly, and personally into the mind of every one of my readers. That is an awesome responsibility that I take extremely seriously. 

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