Should Writers Be Topical?
Anyone with half a brain will know that we live in extraordinary times, but most writing doesn’t reflect the present. Part of the reason is that for fiction writers the gestation period is so long. The distance from the idea to the final version of the book, then to finding the publisher, and then to a year-long wait for a publication slot, is – at a conservative guess – around three years.
In that time governments fall, technology advances, the world moves on and what may have seemed a hard-hitting relevant idea is suddenly killed by the changing times. No wonder writers studiously avoid dates and specific events in their books.
Before the mid-20th century fiction writers used to avoid topicality and even hide place-names, so you’d read; ‘I visited the town of G—-,’ but the internet has meant that anyone can Google the town in which you set your book and pick a fight with you, so we now provide enough topical clues to anchor the story. It would be a churlish writer who attempts to set a novel in present-day America and make it a neverland of timeless perfection unless that book was a fantasy, for example, which I think is why we’re getting so many historical novels right now. If you’re going to use the here and now, it needs to catch something of the times.
Writers could go to the other extreme. Why not be as topical as possible? We worry that readers won’t get the references, that they’re too young to remember or not educated enough to understand. But readers should never be underestimated – even if we don’t get all the references, we certainly get the gist. In 1934 Cole Porter’s song ‘You’re the Top’ included these lyrics;
You’re the top! You’re an Arrow collar.
You’re the top! You’re a Coolidge dollar.
You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re an O’Neill drama, You’re Whistler’s mama,
You’re a rose, You’re Inferno’s Dante,
You’re the nose of the great Durante.
I’m just in the way, as the French would say
“De trop, “
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top.
You’re the top! You’re the Tower of Babel.
You’re the top! You’re the Whitney Stable.
By the River Rhine, You’re a sturdy stein of beer,
You’re a dress from Saks’s, You’re next year’s taxes, ‘
You’re my thirst, You’re a Drumstick Lipstick,
You’re the first in the Irish svipstick,
I’m a frightened frog that can find no log to hop,
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!
Clearly, topicality wasn’t an issue here. Porter’s song was intended to entertain sophisticated New York audiences who would have understood the references, and it would probably have amazed him to realise how long the song has survived.
Jonathan Coe’s state-of-the-nation novel ‘What A Carve-Up! dissected Britain at a very specific time and feels extremely topical, and yet it’s actually looking back at the late 1980s, and this overview future-proofed the novel for the next generation of readers. In the same way, Tom Wolfe reinvented his career with ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’, a cruelly funny dissection of the eighties that will simply become a witty period novel rather than becoming dated.
Perhaps we’re too closely involved in the current alternative facts, post-truth, dumbed-down era to write topically (and accurately) about the times right now. Besides, it’s not always desirable or possible to reference present-day facts in say, a crime novel or a comedy. If somebody cares enough about a story they’ll look up a reference – and it’s surprising how much we absorb from the news. I can still remember the names of politicians, serial killers, victims, musicians, minor character actors and novelists from past decades. Sometimes I’ll drop them into a narrative just to see if anyone’s awake out there. And the nicest thing is, I often get a note back from someone thanking me for stirring a memory.