Honestly brutal

I couldn’t be happier for Marlon James, who’s just won the Man Booker Prize with his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I like his style and his own story. But I find myself wondering again why bleakness and brutality in literature command so much respect, or at least why they take up so much space. 

In The Guardian’s write-up, James won with an “uncompromising novel not for the faint of heart. It brims with shocking gang violence, swearing, graphic sex, drug crime” and “a lot of laughs.” Indeed the whole shortlist this year was “striking for the grimness of the subject matter and the toughness of the reads,” including Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life: “a huge, draining novel which contained some of the most awful accounts of child abuse, cruelty and self-harm that most people are likely to ever read.”

Why are we reading about this, and why are we rewarding those who write about it? Cathartic memoirs are one thing, but the success of fiction that dwells relentlessly in the darkest places - like the Oscar success of Holocaust movies - suggests that we think this is the best art or the art most like life. Is it? 

Critics very often use words like “uncompromising, courageous, unflinching” as terms of praise. Why? What is it that might be compromised? What happens if a writer does fear or flinch? Is a book that doesn’t dwell on what we might as well call evil somehow dishonest or craven? We think it’s gutsy to look, but it’s almost as if we can’t look away; our eyes propped open, Clockwork Orange-style. Yes, we can look at evil, but can we see anything else?

I’ve written before that tragedy has always worn the mantle of greatness, the literary crown. But tragedy and evil are not the same. Hamlet is a great tragedy; Titus Andronicus - a play strewn with rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism - is just a horror show. Maybe we’ve missed the eclipse of tragic form by unfettered atrocity. Maybe we’ve mistaken the blood and guts for greatness.