Magaret Drabble

An Interview with Magaret Drabble
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OKR:

I know that while you were at Cambridge you studied with F.R. Leavis, who was a major proponent of both the Great Tradition you say you were trying to avoid and a certain notion of the authenticity of artistic vision. In your book A Writer's Britain, you seemed to praise Thomas Traherne when you said he was a person who could see the world through his own eyes. I wondered if some of the coordinates for finding your own voice and learning to see through your own eyes came out of studying with Leavis -- in the way you learned to appreciate literature at that time?

MD:

That's a very complicated issue because Leavis did have a great influence on my generation, a profound influence which is still perpetuated by many people who don't even know he existed. And his way of reading, intense reading, is very important to me. The Great Tradition that he taught had a great influence on me. But there was also something in me that rebelled against his control of the canon. He was a very controlling teacher and I feel sure that one of the reasons why my period at Cambridge was not very creative was because of Leavis's presence. He was extremely powerful. And I think what happened in my case was that when I left Cambridge and Leavis, everything that he'd taught remained very important to me, but I'd escaped from the desire to please the father figure. I felt I could write an inconsequential little narrative that Leavis wasn't going to have to mark -- I mean that figuratively, of course, as Leavis never marked any of my essays, though he did mark my mother's -- and I think that's how I managed to write A Summer Bird Cage -- because I didn't have to satisfy the dictates of Leavis. But I frequently think of one or two things that Leavis said. One of the things I think about a great deal is his statement that a work of art should enact its moral meaning. I think of that often when I find myself spelling out or dictating what I think the meaning of something is; I think, "No. I should have an incident or a theme or a story line that carries that idea, rather than just telling people what I mean." So even on that practical level, he did influence me.

OKR:

Where then do you stand in the modernist/postmodernist debate about the integrity and authenticity of the authorial voice? It's quite a tricky thing, after all, to get to see the world through your own eyes, especially given the postmodern critique of authorship, which would seem to suggest that the originality of any particular viewpoint has been chipped away because of all the bits of ideology and cultural influence that come into play in developing one's own voice.

MD:

That is also a complicated and difficult issue. You use the word "postmodern" and I have noticed that into my own work is creeping an increasingly ironical postmodern not to say at times aggressive tone which was certainly not there when Leavis was the dominant influence on literary theory. What happened I think was that we all became more and more aware of deconstruction and we became able to deconstruct almost anything- with the consequence that we no longer knew what the original emphasis had been.. I have found the emergence of deconstruction disturbing and I think my voice has now taken on all sorts of different layers. But luckily my voice is strong enough and my sense of what I was writing was strong enough before these other voices, before these other questions, began to come in. And I have learned to incorporate the questions and second guess the response so I can still write narrative. I think for some people now it's very difficult to write narrative at all.

OKR:

It's interesting that you should say that, because there's a long passage in one of your most recent novels, The Witch of Exmoor, where you talk about the process of social fragmentation and the whole problem of being able to represent somebody who isn't yourself in a way that seems to speak to some of those same issues. As a writer, do you feel more pressure given the contemporary consciousness not only of deconstruction but also of issues of fragmentation in society -- our sense that we've lost unified viewpoints and sometimes even unified selves?

MD:

That absolutely makes clear to me what I was trying to say in my last answer. Which is that the influences that came in post-Leavis have been quite dangerous for writers. Take feminism, for example. When I started writing there was no women's movement; there was no feminist criticism. Feminist criticism was born in 1968 precisely, and I published my first novel in 1963. So I was able to write in the innocent pre-feminist theory days when no one was going to get at me for writing a sort of a feminine book or writing about marriage or clothes. Nobody. There was no prototype feminist novel at all, which made life easier. I had to take feminist attitudes and criticism on board in the 1970s. Then the issue of cultural appropriation came in very, very strongly in the 1990s. A lot of The Witch of Exmoor is about that -- well, not a lot of it, but quite a bit of it. I find both those issues extremely difficult to deal with as a creative writer, and I'm very glad that I started writing in a period before they became conscious issues. The Witch of Exmoor is in a way a more multi-cultural novel than any of my others, which partly reflects the way England is. I mean England has now become a naturally multi-cultural society; the whole of society has become much more mixed. And in The Witch of Exmoor what I wanted to do was this: I wanted to display people from different backgrounds set against this very traditional Anglo-Saxon, self-satisfied tradition and ask the question, "Which society would you rather live in?" So I created one Guyanese character [David] and one Jewish character [Nathan]. I had many Jewish characters in my novels before, because I know a lot of Jewish people so that's no problem to me -- my first husband is Jewish and I am very fond of all his family. But creating a Guyanese character did raise very clear issues of cultural appropriation: what right had I or what ability had I to connect to and write from the viewpoint of a Guyanese person? I know a few Guyanese people in London, and one friend in particular was very helpful to me -- I talked a lot with her about the character who became David, and about Guyana itself. So I thought, "Ok, this is fine. I know that kind of person, I know that kind of politician (although David is a very nice example of an upwardly mobile politician from an ethnic minority). I felt I knew people like that so I could legitimately create this character." Nevertheless, I was worried creating him, though with Nathan, who is Jewish, I felt completely confident. Interestingly, the only flack I've had about the multi-ethnic scene in the novel was about Nathan. Somebody wrote an article on anti-Semitism in the modern British novel, and Nathan was cited as an example of an anti-Semitic portrait. I thought this was funny, as Nathan is quite clearly a very sympathetic character, and anyway I couldn't care less about the allegation, as I knew it was unfounded, but I admit I would have been more than slightly sensitive had my portrait of the Guyanese David been attacked on similar grounds. I also feel I shouldn't have been sensitive about such an issue, and that makes me wonder, in turn, "Why have I made David such a nice chap?" It's because I know it's impossible to create an entirely self-serving black politician at this moment -- at least, it would be very difficult for me to do so or to want to do so. And I'm not sure if those issues are issues I should be thinking about as a writer.


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