How Should Writers Respond To Terror Attacks?
At an early point in their careers, writers have to respond to a series of unspoken questions. What is our best format for communication? (performance, TV, literature – the disciplines are very different). What style suits us best? (fiction, non-fiction, genre, mainstream, small press) and if we choose fiction, do we reflect the present state of the world or overlook it?
We create problems for ourselves whatever we choose, which is why, I think, we now have so many novels set in the past. They bypass the need to consider these issues and tap into something more comfortable and pre-set in the reader’s mind. That’s not to say historical writers can’t change how we see the past. From Hilary Mantel to Lloyd Shepherd, there are writers who open fresh windows into history. Even fantasy can do this, from Susanna Clarke to Philip Pullman.
Setting a book in the present day but in the countryside also largely avoids the issue. We think of rural lives as being unchanged, although they change over time, and many modern writers reflect this. But to set a book in London as it now is requires a conscious decision on the part of the writer to either avoid or bring in social-political elements, and that’s where it gets tricky.
Multiculturalism is the easiest part; you expand your cast of characters to reflect that of the average street. Even police descriptions and investigations can be dealt with, as different units have different responsibilities. But acts of random violence, like the two attacks on London’s bridges, are harder to respond to, and risk altering or completely derailing what you set out to write. You start with a murder mystery and end up writing about terrorism.
The logical solution, as always, is to follow what the readers do and accurately reflect the lives of Londoners. If you’re writing an entertainment (i.e. not issuing a polemic) you treat it just as a London thing, by acknowledging and respecting tragic events but considering them within the wider context of city life. In a city approaching 9 million, such events need to take on the correct proportion.
For evidence, look at the online reaction to the New York Times’ claim that London was left ‘reeling’ by the latest attack – some very funny posts. And even in the event of police telling people to run, this chap on the right wasn’t going to leave his beer. Or as someone pointed out on Twitter, ‘It’s London bridge ffs he’s paid £5.50 for that pint’.