“What to do? Where to turn? Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it be? Ask the age we live in and it might reply – the witness. And, if possible, the eyewitness.
It’s an old role, this. I was there, I saw it, it happened to me: these are seductive recommendations, and make a deep appeal to the imagination…
…… Captivity narratives, castaway narratives, war stories, civil-war stories, slavery narratives, catastrophe stories, memoirs of hard-done-by-outlaws and pirates, incest-survivor stories, Soviet union gulag stories, atrocity stories: how much more compelling we find them if we think they’re based on real events, and especially real events that have happened to the writer!
The power of such narratives is immense, especially when combined with artistic power. And the courage to write them, and sometimes to smuggle then across borders so they can be published is equally stupendous. These stories exist in a realm that is neither fact nor fiction, but perhaps both: let us call it enhanced fact.
….This is why so many people have faked such stories….
….A socially conscious writer can quite easily be charged with exploiting the misery and misfortune of the downtrodden for his own gain……The line between these is sometimes thin, and sometimes it’s only in the eye of the beholder.
Then, too, the eyewitness can be a kind of voyeur.
…What did Yeats mean when he told a future generation of poets to cast a cold eye on life and death? Why does the eye have to be so cold?
…The eye is cold because it is clear, and it is clear because its owner must look: he must look at everything. Then she must record.
…the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant. Instead it’s the reader. ”
Extracted from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co”, in On Writers and Writing, Virago, 2003:104-109