This column is an opinion-free zone

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The Independent Online

I have a bone to pick with my readers who answer my columns in the letter pages of this newspaper, or enter into corrective correspondence with me personally: those who want to tell me off or put me right. Those who misunderstand the nature of our relationship.

I have a bone to pick with my readers today. Not all my readers, of course. Just those who answer my columns in the letter pages of this newspaper, or enter into corrective correspondence with me personally. Those who want to tell me off or put me right. Those who misunderstand the nature of our relationship.

Picking bones with your readers is not generally considered good form, I know. Humility teaches you to be grateful you even have such a thing as a reader, and etiquette recommends you treat him with civility. He doesn't have to read you, after all. He could always be reading some else. The trouble is that's exactly what he's doing. The reader who writes to me, I mean. He's reading someone else.

There is a scene in one of my favourite novels in which the hero complains of a particularly touchy academic woman, one who, as a matter of academic or gender principle (assuming there's any longer any difference), takes offence at everything he says and does. Only let him, in the name of peace, present her with a bouquet of flowers, and she will quarrel with the scent.

I now remember that the novel I'm thinking of was written by me, which could explain why it is one of my favourites. But this is what I complain of, too. That I present my readers with flowers every Saturday - here, for you, enjoy! - and a number of them choose to quarrel with the scent. As though a rose is something you are at liberty to disagree with. Granted, you are within your rights not to like the colour or the configuration, or even to reject the idea of a rose entirely. Prefer a peony if you wish. Or do without flowers altogether. But you cannot argue with the rose. It hasn't said anything which invites contrary opinion. Whichever way you look at it, a rose simply isn't in the opinion business.

And neither, reader, am I.

True, we appear on a page headed Editorial and Opinion, but what could be more postmodern than subverting the very notion of opinion on an opinion page? And God knows you get enough of the stuff elsewhere in the paper. This is an egregiously opinionated organ. Look where you will, in every section you will find a person of strong convictions brewing controversy. Therefore give thanks, I say, that you can stop and smell a flower along the way.

This is a novelist's thing I'm urging on you, I accept. Novelists do not see it as their business to have an opinion about anything, at least when they are writing a novel (and if you think that that disqualifies me from speaking as a novelist in this instance then I must confess to you that I have always understood this column to be a little novel of sorts, not a novel in embryo but a novel complete unto itself, possessed of an ironic structure and essentially dialogic in form, even when apparently discursive). Indeed the very purpose of the novel, its reason, pride and justification, is to leave not a single opinion standing, to cast doubt on every system of belief and thought, to call into question certainty, faction, party, every religious or political persuasion to which men have made themselves, and go on making themselves, subservient. This is not nihilism but its very opposite. Read Anna Karenina or Ulysses and you come away buoyant with the amplitude of believing in nothing except the joy contingent on the bodying forth of life.

Hard to pull off an Anna Karenina or a Ulysses in a thousand words each week, even supposing us to have the genius, which we don't. We do, however, seek the animated picture. Thus, when I argue that a version of the life of a suicide bomber is incomplete because it doesn't get us from the introversion of the bomber's meditations in Hounslow to the act of crossing the Allenby Bridge and blowing up people he doesn't know and to whom he has no reason, personally, to bear a grudge, what I am missing is the novel. The narrative of his evolution and education. And when I argue that that narrative has been elided for reasons which are political, I don't expect to be suspected of expressing some contrary politic of my own. Reader, I have none. I am as a rose.

And yet this one will write to the paper wondering what the difference is between a suicide bomber on their side and a fighter pilot on ours (which improperly supposes that I have a side, and happens to be an injudicious comparison to boot since it dodges the question of intention), and another will write to correct my history of the Holy Land, and yet another to enquire why I don't campaign for wider acknowledgment of the Armenian holocaust.

All of which interventions into my quiet are justified in that he who stands up must expect now and then to be noticed, but they do mistake the nature of the discourse between us. You do not write to James Joyce's estate to point out that Leopold Bloom was only a blotting paper salesman in Dublin because the Jews had been expelled from Palestine two thousand years before (which might be Ariel Sharon's fault, and then again might be Yasser Arafat's), nor to Tolstoy's to argue with Levin on the rights of the Russian peasantry.

Or maybe now you do. Maybe now you finish a novel and go on a march. For there is abroad an infection of 'current affairs' thinking which reduces the great sweep of life to the chatter of ideology and partisanship, as though the Iliad could be put to rights on Newsnight. Wordsworth, according to Shelley, was able to waken "a sort of thought in sense". Sense as in sensation. And this is art's gift to us - thought made plastic, freed from the cold violence of opinion.

But please do not bother to contact me if you think I'm wrong. I am but a fragrance, here to sweeten the beginning of your weekend.

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