I have a new book out called “The Patient”. I’m now in that stage of having to talk about it all the time – to keep the publisher happy, to give myself a chance of selling enough copies to be able to publish another one – which I don’t really relish. But there is something interesting I can talk about with this one and the run in to its publication as it relates to the wider universe. It has to do with fiction in the current age and how certain assumptions are creeping in that will make it very hard for challenging fiction of any description to continue being produced.
When you get published by an imprint attached to a major publisher, they send your book out for review. They give it to all the big newspapers and magazines, hoping to get a bite, but they know for relatively unknown writers a safer bet is to send it out to book bloggers. These are people who will be willing to write a review in return for a free copy of a book. I got a lot of pick up this time from these bloggers, who knows why. I suppose the book is set in a hospital and deals with medicalisation as one of its themes in a time when that is relevant to a lot of people, but I’m only guessing. Maybe they liked the cover – sometimes it is as superficial and unrelated to what you actually wrote as that.
Anyhow, as is always the case, some of the reviewers really liked it, some of them sort of liked it, some of them sort of didn’t like it and some of them hated it. So far, so normal. Yet what interests me this time round is what I’ve picked up on as a strange form of political correctness that I believe is very dangerous. In fact, if spread across novel writing as a whole, the genre might as well pack it in.
“The Patient” has two main characters, Mr and Mrs Sincope, a couple who are about to have their first child. He is a fairly terrible person – he is sexist, xenophobic, arrogant without even any justifiable cause. In fact, one reviewer summed him up beautifully:
“If you wanted a picture of your typical, think I am better than everyone, misogynist, racist male – he is it.”
Great, the reviewer got it, spot on – always nice when your character is understood. Except, this is the next line in the review:
“It was really distracting from the book and difficult to read.”
In other words, having a sexist male character in a book that is specifically about sexism and a woman’s right to her own body is….distracting? Just having to be confronted with the actions of a misogynist in a novel is now “difficult”?
I realise what I might be heading into here is the territory of a writer bitching about negative reviews – I assure you, that’s not what this is about. Even the positive reviews of the book I have found a little bewildering, as they tend to have a “really enjoyed this, cracking read, but beware, it’s somewhat offensive” vibe to them – “This didn’t bother me, but it probably will appal most people”. No, the reason I feel the need to write about this is that there appears to be a widespread idea, baked in for a certain group of people now, that if a novel has a sexist, xenophobic character, even if this character is obviously a “bad guy”, then the book is in itself is sexist and xenophobic as a result. As in, just presenting characters who have these traits, even if they are being displayed so that they can be shown to be problematic, is somehow crossing a line in the sand.
If you think this isn’t that important, I should let you know that book bloggers have become to some extent gatekeepers in the publishing world. Getting reviewed in a major publication happens but is rare and increasingly difficult unless you are very famous and/or your last book was an international best seller. The source of decent reviews for most up and coming writers are these bloggers. And the fact that so many of them, even those who liked my book and gave it a good review, have trouble with politically incorrect characters being present has shaken me a little. It will have a definite effect on how much writers of all fiction will want to ‘rock the boat’.
I think of someone like Irvine Welsh, as leftie and right on as you can get, and all of the horrible characters in his books. Think of Begbie or Sick Boy in Trainspotting – actually, think of any character in that book, including Renton. Once upon a time, challenging your audience with distasteful scenes and characters in order to make a point about the world was the edgy thing all vaguely progressive writers did. I guess I didn’t get the memo.
Anyhow, given all that, if any of you faithful readers can have a look at the book and tell me if you think it is actually offensive, I would be grateful. Plus, if enough of you who read this buy a copy, I can shut up about the book and talk about other shit for a while. Here it is: