Writing and anger - conducive to good art?

As any regular readers of my blog may know, last week was quite an odd one for me, involving some 'sockpuppetry', unfounded allegations, fake identities and all manner of angry hits aimed at a critic for just doing her job. I did wonder at one point about the reason for this seeming explosion of anger being directed at me - not as a means of deflecting it from myself, as clearly a couple of people were furious with me and for very specific reviews.

No, I wondered if there was something more to it and if it would be likely that there would be more of it to come. Much of the publishing world has been caught up with the 'sockpuppetry scandal', where authors create fake identities online to disparage rivals and big up their own books anonymously. It's been assumed this is just about getting better sales - although two authors exposed, Stephen Leather and R J Ellory, apparently have excellent sales figures. Why would they need to try and damage others'?

I can't possibly hope to know what motivates certain individuals, but it seems to me there's an ever-increasing atmosphere of anger amongst writers. Authors are, understandably perhaps, getting really angry, and they're doing so much more publicly, too - whether it's about fake reviews of their work, or getting angry enough to post up fake reviews in the first place. Alain de Botton notoriously badmouthed a critic for a bad review not so long ago (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/mar/30/jacqueline-howett-bad-review?INTCMP=SRCH) - a response written in anger, surely? He could hardly be at the mercy of low sales figures and a slap on the wrist form his publishers. His career is a huge success - so why get so angry with a critic?

As the publishing industry wonders what to do (the recent merger of Penguin and Random House hasn't got everyone exactly smiling, with many feelings it bodes ill for writers: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/and-so-i-bid-penguin-a-sad-farewell-8231433.html), writers are suffering, and I believe many of us are becoming more and more insecure as a result, whether there's a real solid reason for it or not. Fewer and fewer 'midlist' writers (and that means most of us) are being kept on by their publishers, and those who are, are being offered vastly reduced advances. That can have a huge and often disastrous effect: writers who might once have depended on their books making them a precarious but manageable living, have found themselves 'out of work', unable to pay bills, and are panicky and angry about possibly having to give up work they love. Weak sales figures have become the enemy of every writer, and it's little wonder that those perceived to have an influence on sales may become a target of our ire.

This is all a very long-winded way, though, of me getting to my point - writing in anger, which might be one way for authors to channel their rage at their present situation (once they've gotten home from the call centre job they've just had to take up to pay the rent because their publisher doesn't think their next book is commercial enough and their agent won't answer their emails). I think it was Virginia Woolf who said that anger wasn't conducive to good art, and it got me wondering, not for the first time, if that's true? We don't think passion, whether love or lust, is bad for art; we don't think extraordinary pain or suffering is bad for it, either. But anger?

So I started to think about 'angry novels' - how many could I come up with? I've always thought James Kelman's novels have an undercurrent of anger in them, and Marilyn French's The Women's Room is undoubtedly an angry book (the hippy love-ins and exotic pasta dishes that occupy her for seemingly hundreds of pages are just to create a false sense of security before the main character's daughter is raped and the novel explodes with rage). A political aspect then, helps; a strong sense of injustice against massive wrongs and inequalities - but does that make 1984, say, an angry book? Is Philip Roth's Indignation an 'angry' book? Or Toni  Morrison's Beloved?

The post-war years saw an explosion of 'angry young men' drama, sparked off by John Osborne's 1956 play, Look Back in Anger. Was there a similar release of anger in fiction? Of course there was some impact on fiction - John Braine's 1957 Room at the Top, for instance, or Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both recounting the lives of young working-class men. Were women novelists doing the same at this time? And why did they stop writing so angrily? If, in fact, they did so?

I suspect there are readers out there who know a great deal more about this period than I do - input welcomed! But it does suggest that anger linked to a movement or a period can work in art. Anger linked to a personal situation - as a means of settling scores, or voicing frustrations - is maybe not quite so successful.

Only time will tell if this is a watershed moment in fiction publishing, if the current financial attitude in publishing is unleashing a generation of angry, frustrated writers, beginners whose hopes have been built up and then dashed, or mid-term writers whose longevity is being rudely discounted. But it may produce some very interesting, and challenging, work nevertheless.


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