Unlike my other least favourite question – “What’s your novel about?” – this one, “Why write?”, is a question that writers ask themselves, usually plaintively. Both are unanswerable, at least politely, and yet we can’t resist taking stabs at responses. To the first, Michael Ondaatje is said to have replied that if he could tell us what his novel was about, he wouldn’t have had to write it. Or as a character says in J.M. Coetzee’s novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, “If your son were to explain his dance he would not be able to dance anymore. That is the paradox within which we dancers are trapped.”
Philip Roth raises the question in the title of his 2017 book, Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013. The collection approaches the query as a fox circles a thicket, wanting to know what’s in it without directly engaging it. In a 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” he notes that the task of American fiction writers is “to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.” Their task is made difficult by the fact that much of American reality is already so bizarre and “ridiculous” that “the actuality is continually outdoing our talents….The daily newspapers fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible? is it happening?) also with sickness and despair.” How does a writer sift through “the fixes, the scandals, the insanity, the idiocy, the piety, the lies, the noise….?” And that was in 1961; the year after Kennedy defeated Nixon, Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t happened, and Roy Orbison’s “Crying” was at the top of the hit parade (Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta” was number eleven). What on Earth must Roth think about American reality now? Well, we know, because in a recent New York Times interview he more or less threw up his hands: events have surpassed anything that can remotely be made credible, having plummeted from the merely ridiculous to the criminally insane. Trump is “a massive fraud” and his presidency “the most debasing of disasters.” But what would he make of it in a work of fiction? That we’ll never know, because in 2012 he retired from writing novels.
So the question remains: Why write?
A short story by Claire Messud, published in 1995 in Granta, goes some way to providing an answer. “The Professor’s History,” concerns a French historian living in Algeria during the Second World War. In his researches, he has come across a suggestion that French soldiers stationed in a remote part of Algeria a hundred years earlier had massacred a group of Algerian rebels, including women and children. The professor travels to view the area and interview local villagers to see if he can verify what he read in the journal of the French officer who ordered the atrocity. When he explains his mission to the administrator of the region, the official dismisses it, telling him that history is “of very little use in the field,” is, in fact, “a waste and a distraction.”
“Tell me, what good is it? What difference will it make, to tell your story, even if it is true?”
In other words, why write?
The professor is coldly infuriated by the question, doesn’t even try to respond to it. He continues into the hills, talks to herdsmen and villagers, and discovers the evidence he seeks. On June 19, 1845 — Algeria was then a colony of France but wouldn’t become a full department until three years later — a French regiment rounded up 500 Algerian villagers, sealed them in a cave, built huge bonfires at the cave’s entrance, and suffocated everyone within.
Vindicated, the professor returns to his library in the city, determined to begin work on “the book.”
Before he gets very far, however, his project stalls. Perhaps the administrator’s words have weakened his resolve – it doesn’t take much to render a writer paralytic with self-doubt. Perhaps he feels the magnitude of the story makes it too complex for his meagre talent. Or perhaps the time isn’t right. After all, France is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Germany, invading troops are closing in on Paris — so close, writes Messud, that “French soldiers were being sent to the Front in taxis.” Why would he want to publish a work that shows the French army in a bad light, that makes Frenchmen out to be as bloody-minded and barbaric as the enemy they’re fighting?
Whatever the cause, the professor stops writing. Again, there is that withering question: “Even if he were to finish his book, who would read it?” So, why write?
Earlier in his researches he had discovered, in the library basement, a large jar filled with “tinted liquid, in which swam a swarm of pinkish, shrimp-like creatures.” These were the severed ears of the Algerian rebels that the French soldiers had cut off and preserved in 1845. Who knew why, and who knew how they had been kept for so long, In his restless roaming the streets of Tangiers, the professor thinks again about what was in that jar. “Unable to confront this horror, he had chosen to ignore it: it had been as easy as shutting a drawer.” But now the image haunts him.
The story ends with the professor, hunched in the dusty library basement, reading his book to the jar: “For them, the professor decided at last, he would tell his story.”
And there we have the best possible answer to the question, Why write?