Men, women and the political novel

To the Bath literature festival earlier this week, to speak with Roma Tearne, author of two vivid, wonderfully told and swift moving novels about both her native Sri Lanka and life as a recent immigrant in Britain, to which she came, aged ten, fleeing the civil war in her country.

I am at the festival talking about ‘One Of Us’ and the first question that fellow writer Chair Jenni Mills puts to us is this: are the political novels of men and women different and if so in what way?

I am glad she gave me – five minutes – notice of this, my first question of the event, as my mind is already swirling with disparate thoughts.

Of course there isn’t a straightforward answer; for a start there are so many different kinds of political novels and political writers. But one thing that occurs to me is how much male political novelists – be it Trollope or Tolstoy or Jean Paul Sartre or Philip Roth – and for some reason I’m completely stuck for names of more contemporary male novelists, except David Peace whom I can’t speak about because I haven’t yet read any of his books! – write about feelings and families and all that traditional girly stuff; in other words, it’s interesting how much of a female sensibility male writers actually have. Yes, the more traditional thriller writers stick to plots, cabals, car crashes, poisoning and the rest but the most interesting of the male writers, in a political genre, will tackle, often most elegantly, the emotions and the emotional structure underpinning social or political institutions, write of these with a very keen eye.

So, just an observation – it’s hot up on that stage! – followed by a second thought: that the most accomplished of the women political writers ( again, in the very broadest sense) like Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer can convey the political feel of an era or place with matchless ease. Anyone who wants to understand the European left of the fifties and sixties, or South Africa before or after the end of apartheid, need only turn to the novels of these women to get a sense of the ideas and arguments and conflicts of their time.

Does this mean there is no difference? No, I think there is but where and in what way does it lie? A differing emphasis perhaps on the relative place of the personal and the political? A keen sense, by the women writers, of emotional truths?

So no definitive answer/s but I’m working on it. So, I suspect, is Roma Tearne, who was also put on the spot – or under the spotlight – on this tricky but interesting matter.

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