Natasha Walter: A look at the past that shines a light on the present

'Many fiction writers are feeling a little redundant in their main jobs at the moment'
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The Independent Online

"I think – I'm not sure, but I think – that I and other comic writers now have the most pointless jobs in the world. Even Posh Spice et al surely fall into the cheering-the-troops department. We are more like a useless irritation: the wrong words, the wrong time, the wrong medium." So wrote Zadie Smith in an article that was published at the weekend, and I found myself wondering over her words.

Even those fiction writers who are not exactly comic – have they slipped off our radar recently? If you're pinned to television and newspapers, e-mail and constant chats with worried friends, have you got much time right now for words that don't comment directly on the current state of the world? At the moment, would you rather pick up a work on the Booker shortlist or a dispatch by some journalist on the Afghan border with a claim, however spurious, to an insight into the mindset of the Taliban?

Many fiction writers are feeling a little redundant in their main jobs at the moment. At least I assume that's the case, given the hours that so many of the most renowned novelists of our times have recently spent not polishing their next work of fiction, but commenting on world events. Dozens of them have put their new chapters to one side and, instead, joined jobbing journalists in filling up acres of newsprint. I have read columns by Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith and others who want to share their emotional and political responses to wrecked buildings or fundamentalism or bombing.

And I have turned to these bylines with great expectation, naturally. After all, these are the writers who have proved their ability to cast cliche aside and to explore the world with an emotional subtlety that most journalists can never hope to emulate. What a surprise it has been, then, to see that once they go to work as journalists, so few of these novelists have been able to add any distinctive note to all the commentary around us.

For instance, when Ian McEwan wrote about the initial attack, he explained that the hate of the terrorists was counterbalanced by the expressions of love made by the people who were facing death. It's true that being allowed to eavesdrop on the loving phone messages left by the dying was the most moving aspect of the coverage of the atrocity. But McEwan's bland reiteration of that fact added nothing to the reportage of those messages.

Indeed, I can't honestly say that anything written directly about the subject by any of the great fiction writers has deepened my understanding of the events of 11 September. They themselves have been too keen to set aside their own distinctive tones in their journalism, in an attempt to reach for some kind of universality.

But does that mean that the importance of these writers has really been lessened? I would say, not at all. McEwan was unable to write a piece of journalism that explored the gulf between love and war in a way that was any more interesting than the reports by straight journalists. But try reading his new novel, Atonement, and you see that as a fiction writer he can do it. He can walk up to that gulf, and peer into it, and force you to go there too.

That novel – which should, but, knowing the perversity of prize juries, probably will not win the Booker prize tonight – is set in an era that is now over half a century old, the carnage of the Second World War. And yet it speaks to us in a voice that reverberates with today's unpredictable events. As McEwan's sundered protagonists try to reach for one another's love through the madness of Dunkirk, McEwan encourages us to recognise what we know but cannot always feel: that even the biggest conflagrations in history do not force everyone into one pattern, but re-echo through each life separately, creating a uniquely shocking tragedy for each individual.

Another novelist whose new book is set within the shockwaves of the Second World War is the extraordinary writer W G Sebald. Yet his book, Austerlitz, even seems to contain a ghostly premonition of recent events: "Somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadows of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins," he writes early in the novel.

And when one finds that his book enlarges the experience of a single wartime refugee, the connection between the emotions he conveys and those inherent in current events becomes strangely unnerving. The refugees whose faces we see on our televisions may never have a Sebald to chronicle their displacement. But somehow to follow his walk through the mazes of lives cut into two is to be pushed closer to the misery they are experiencing, closer than any television camera can ever go.

Because – as we have always known, even if we sometimes choose to forget – novelists do not have to be writing directly about current events for their work to shine a light – sometimes an unbearably harsh light – on those events.