Ethnicity, Authenticity, and Empathy in the Realist Novel and Its Alternatives

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Author: Dave Gunning
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 13,108 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Gunning evaluates Kunzru’s work alongside that of Caryl Phillips, deeming both to be “politically committed writers from ethnic minorities in Britain.”]

I’ve had conversations with Zadie Smith where she’s asked me, “Why do I get sent every black woman’s book but I never get sent a white male writer’s book?” That’s why I think she’s now focused on writing essays on people like E. M. Forster and Franz Kafka. I mean this is her route out of that particular ghetto. It would be interesting to see what Monica Ali does next. I have no idea what she’s writing about, but I wonder what would happen if she wrote a novel with no Bengali characters in it. Will readers accept that from her? I’m certainly looking at a project that has nothing to do with race at all. This will be the acid test.Hari Kunzru, “Hari Kunzru in Conversation”

Anna Wulf, the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, maintains a complicated relationship with the Communist Party, with one aspect of her dissatisfaction the stance the Party takes toward literature, praising books for their ideological correctness, or in accordance with restrictive notions of realist artistic practice, rather than for their literary qualities. At one point, the novel includes a series of reviews of Anna’s first novel, Frontiers of War, pinned into the black notebook. The first of these gives a clear sense of the tone of this kind of criticism and of the demands made upon writers:

What a writer must search for in her calvary towards true artistic verity is the typical. Such a situation [as in Anna’s novel] is not, cannot be, typical. Suppose the young writer, daring the Himalayas of truth itself, had made her hero a young white working man and her heroine an African organized worker from a factory? In such a situation she might have found a solution, political, social, spiritual, that could have shed light on the future struggle for Freedom in Africa. Where are the working masses in this book? Where the class-conscious fighters? They do not appear. But let not this talented young writer lose heart! The artistic heights are for the great in spirit! Forward! for the sake of the world!(392)Lessing’s satire here can seem heavy-handed, imagining a criticism that rejects the actual content of a text as inevitably less able to capture the realist aspiration of typicality than an imagined alternative text would, one in which a pre-assumed set of ideal fictional paradigms is present. Yet the tone and content of Lessing’s fictional review (which indirectly captures her attitude toward some of the inadequacies of the realist mode with which she was struggling in the early sixties and was soon to abandon entirely)1 finds an unusual echo in Wendy O’Shea Meddour’s review of Monica Ali’s award-winning Brick Lane (2003):

The fatalistic and passive Nazneen, having spent years praying in a “drugged”-like fashion and tending to her husband’s corns and nasal hair,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123822