Thomas Sutcliffe: All's fair in love and literature

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, a scientific paper in Nature reported that men enjoyed retribution more than women. They've done brain scans to prove it, apparently, revealing that while both sexes show empathy for the suffering of others, men take a particular pleasure when just deserts are handed out.

As it happened, that finding chimed intriguingly with a bad bout of esprit d'escalier I was going through. It originated in a discussion of Augusten Burroughs's novel Sellevision on Saturday Review, the Radio 4 arts programme I present, and during which I'd ventured the thought that Burroughs was guilty of a certain amount of favouritism with regard to his characters. Something about the way that he punishes some while rewarding others struck me as unjust.

At that point, Fay Weldon put me right. I can't remember her exact words, but the gist of them, murmured in a gently chiding tone, was that we shouldn't ever expect novels to be fair. And I caved in, to be frank - because at that moment my position seemed pretty indefensible. Expecting novels to be fair is as guilelessly naive, after all, as expecting life to be fair. We are supposed to grow out of that sort of thing.

Afterwards, though, I found myself thinking of what I might have said, rather than just meekly capitulating. And what I eventually settled on was something along the following lines. We may not expect a novel to be fair, but perhaps we may reasonably ask that the novelist doesn't add more injustice to a world that already has more than enough.

Of course, it's absurd to think of a novelist as dispensing justice with a God-like even-handedness. It wouldn't work, for one thing, since the writer has to feel some of the passions and prejudices of his or her characters. And to suggest that the value of a writer bore any relation to his or her powers of judicial detachment would very quickly get us into trouble. George Eliot, for example, might be offered as an example of a novelist who strives to lay all the relevant facts before the jury. She is reluctant to condemn, open to pleas of mitigation, at pains to forestall a hasty verdict. Dickens, on the other hand, often writes like a prosecuting counsel. What do we know of Krook's unhappy childhood, in Bleak House, or of Bill Sikes's social exclusion, in Oliver Twist? They are villains, four square. And yet it wouldn't make much sense to say that Eliot was better than Dickens on those grounds.

But that doesn't quite appease our appetite for comeuppance. There was a time, of course, when the argument would have been the other way round. For Aristotle and others the whole point of poetry (in other words, fiction) was to represent the world as it should be, not as it actually was. Indeed, the fact that it could actually do this was its best defence against attacks on its pernicious falsity. Crudely speaking the opposite is now true: the morality of literature lies in its unblinking representation of the nature of the world and writers tend to get much more credit for being unblinking about the bad stuff than they do for noticing the good (which always lays you open to a charge of culpable innocence). And, since we're partial to our own cultural prejudices, it's hard to think of this reversal in assumptions as anything but a maturing of our sense of what literature is for. We no longer expect it to sermonise or to offer admonitory parables about the wages of sin.

I do wonder though whether Aristotle and his disciples might have understood something about the incorrigible desires of readers, and not just the male ones, either. Even sophisticated writers, after all, aren't immune to the profound attractions of justice dispensed. "There is no God that governs the earth righteously", rants Eliot's Silas Marner, after he has wrongly been expelled from his church for theft.

Eliot the intellectual concurs, I imagine, but Eliot the writer (and reader) then goes on to deliver something that is a touching substitute for divine redress. And, while we may know full well that the falsely accused are just as likely to consume their lives in bitterness, the end of Silas Marner doesn't really strike us as a sentimental evasion of the truth. In practice the old assumption about what literature is for has an active life within the new assumptions. Indeed, if I remember correctly, part of the pleasure of Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She Devil lay in the way it identified a crime and then delivered a condign punishment. Maybe our difference of opinion was a gender thing, rather than a collision of the antique and the modern. But I suspect I'm not the only reader who hopes that the novelist will do the right thing, rather than the realistic one.