‘I have never thought of writing as a profession. It is a solitary, independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority… Whatever the motives, political or personal, which have led me to undertake to write something, the writing begins, as soon as I begin, a struggle to give meaning to experience. Every profession has limits to its competence, but also to its own territory. Writing, as I know it, has no territory of its own. The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach.’ – John Berger.
I’ve been reading John Berger’s Pig Earth again as, I believe, any writer should at least every couple of years. Here is a book that acts simultaneously as a record of experience, a narrative about experience, and a lesson in writing. It is writing as commitment – political and personal. Berger’s touchstone is honesty – when you read Berger you notice all of the dishonesties and evasions in your own writing, all the places where ‘bad faith’ has crept in. This does not occlude the possibility of all the range of narrative tricks available to the author (after all, the last story in the book, ‘The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol’, is a narrative of ghosts, set the borderland between the living and the dead), but those tricks need to be used in the service of the story – the fictional truth which reveals experience.
That said, Berger being a writer of political engagement is, of course, no accident, and at a time when public discourse continues to narrow it becomes the job of any writer – if it wasn’t already – to attempt to disrupt this discourse, identify its limits, and direct our attention to who is favoured by this narrowing, what their power structure is, and who are its victims.
All writing is political, as is all art. Each artist has a choice as to whether they endorse or fight back against the prevailing discourse. Whether ‘swimming against the tide’ as Henry James put it, or ‘speaking truth to power’ in the words of Edward Said, all artists need to ensure that we continue to open a space where the human, in all its messy glory, continues to be given voice.