Can fiction save our souls? A credo

At the end of this week, I plan to express my beliefs about the kind of world we must make and share – on the Women’s March for London and with CND at the US Embassy. I also have beliefs, as an author but also a lifelong lover of words and stories, about the kind of fiction we need, as humans on this Earth, and why great writing makes a difference.

  1. Great writing is both an expressive art and form of music.

As I wrote in my review of Susan Fletcher’s novel, Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, I was “emotionally immersed in everything the words combine to paint: the portraits, the landscapes, the still lives and the stories they tell in all their delicacy and brilliancy. Because Susan Fletcher’s gift, peaking here, is a sensual, joyous artistry, and like the paintings Jeanne discovers in the asylum, the language glows, thrills and exhilarates.”


  1. The greatest writers have a recognizably individual style, like Van Gogh and Bach, with virtuoso variations.

The Silver Dark Sea by Susan Fletcher and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which stirred me deeply in 2016, are both strikingly symphonic mood pieces, yet as different as two beautifully written novels could be.


  1. Novels are also an adventure into the unknown and/or the labyrinth we call the human soul.

See the delicately truthful and humane work of Marilynne Robinson, whose Lila was my gently compelling favourite novel of 2016.


  1. It’s a dark and lonely task, yet the result must be vividly peopled and illuminated. An actively connected inner life is more essential to great writing than travel and extensive bucket list experience.


  1. Novels and their characters can change lives from the inside. They can connect with the truest, deepest and most vulnerable self.

Writing The Waterhouse Girl (“beautifully written” Michael Morpurgo) transformed mine. Making a fiction of my alopecia experience – through a character that represented a braver me – changed the way I live, feel and am. It made me an author, made a difference to readers who felt supported by it, and earned me the role of Ambassador for Alopecia UK.


  1. Writing fiction is a precise craft – even if the work is unplanned – because the language has its disciplines, rhythms, associations, weighting, textures and colours. It demands care and respect, and an understanding of its many and various effects, if it is to be worked into a character of its own inhabiting the story.


  1. Readers project onto stories through the lens of their own experience, emotions and worldview, so a novel as received by the reader was effectively co-created: 80% author, 20% reader?

See Amazon reviews of just about any classic novel, or join a book group. Recently we’ve seen that Leslie’s Heaven’s Rage (while intensely personal, and best described as imaginative essays or fictionalised autobiography) has been appreciated by readers who have not only commented on the beauty of the poetic writing but connected with it in their own individual ways: as lovers of nature or music, because of struggles with identity, alcohol or illness or as adults who remember the child they used to be. They’re moved to hear their own echoes in answer to his voice.


  1. Writers who manipulate a plot and its characters also manipulate readers.

This seems to me an exercise rather than an exploration of humanity, and even if my curiosity is aroused or my intellect teased, it leaves me emotionally disengaged.


  1. Great writers respect both characters and readers, allowing them the freedom to grow and connect as they choose.


  1. Yet the most powerful and memorable writing emerges from conviction about humanity and/or society, not a moral vacuum.

Dickens, George Eliot, Owen and Sassoon, Michael Morpurgo…


  1. Stories are essential and natural to human beings. Good stories widen experience and increase our understanding of the people we cannot be and lives we never live, developing empathy and self-knowledge and therefore benefiting society as a whole.


  1. Love and loss of love (in many different ways) are the most compelling universal themes and can never be exhausted.

Whatever the age of my audience, genre or style, characters or plot developments, I don’t think I’ve ever built a book around anything else!

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