Apparently Chris Cleave has been on the road promoting his new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, since January. On hearing this, I half expected a bedraggled Cleave to front for the keynote speech of our first National Writers Forum: crumpled notes in hand, world-weary and longingly counting down the days until home. Instead, Cleave presented the most calm, thoughtful, and compelling commentary I’ve heard on the current global socio-economic climate and the resulting challenges writers are facing, not just in their work, but also in their lives.
Cleave had obviously done his research. He started with a discussion of New Zealand literature and his experiences with a country that maintains a cultural focus while still having a healthy curiosity for the outward world. New Zealand, Cleave says, “punches well above its weight in literature”, sometimes much to his chagrin, what with all these New Zealand Man Booker Prize wins. Yet, he assures us, he doesn’t hate us.
But hate is on the rise, and the hard right is resurgent. As Cleave so aptly put it: “People are building walls again, and topping them with barbed wire.” And the problem with this hate? It’s catching – and so much more readily compressible; perfectly adapted to the digital medium. Rage has become the fuelling emotion of our era.
So, in a world filled with viral sound bites of hate, what can writers do to be useful? Cleave detailed a list of five things that writers can do to matter in an Orwellian world of fuelled by “Two Minutes Hate” – I thoroughly recommend that you read this list, along with the full transcript of Chris’s speech, on his website (link below). They’re points that deserve thoughtful reflection, and a pause for breath.
Though I’m sure that all writers and the bookishly inclined will gain something different from Cleave’s list, the one that really stuck with me was number four: tell stories in a world no longer listening to fact. With science, reason and statistical analysis all failing to hold authority in our current political climates, storytellers have become the most powerful change makers. While this is a dangerous and somewhat scary thought, I do find something thrillingly Foucauldian about the idea. That this might be a step towards empowering subjugated knowledges – those low-ranking knowledges embodied and learned through human experience – is comforting in a way that cold, hard facts never could be.
We live in a storied world. As Cleave puts it: “When we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us.” Evil may be quick, dominating, and seductive; but appealing to humanity – something that writers have always done well – has the power to change this narrative, and to know when it has achieved its purpose.
Read the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s amazing speech here.
Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson
National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen: Chris Cleave