Category: Fisk

On memorable reporting

By , 13 April 2007 7:59 pm

I’ve had a busy second week of the holidays, making some good progress on the final book and doing a lot of preparation for teaching next week. I had a couple of nice e-mails, and someone pointed out that there is a small but perfectly formed group discussing my books on a Facebook group. I have also written a longer article for the Speculative Faith website on writing and theology. I should post that on Saturday 14th. Go and seek it out.

In between all this I have started reading Robert Fisk’s fat tome, on his thirty years in the Middle East, entitled The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East. For those who don’t know, Fisk is a British journalist and commentator on the Middle East; the area being the way it is, he is pretty much what we used to call a ‘war correspondent’. For a year we lived about 100 yards away from him in Beirut, and I’d often see him on his balcony. I also once asked him a question about postmodernism at a seminar; as I expected, that topic got very short shrift and my colleagues in the social sciences looked very uneasy.

Anyway Fisk is pretty controversial in some circles because of his appalling pessimism (which in the Middle East tends to be a safe bet) and the fact that he has been very negative about Western intervention and has had some very hard things to say about Israel. Although I mention him here for reasons other than his ‘politics’ it is worth saying that although his handling of the historical facts can be sometimes lax, his descriptions of the events he has witnessed seem to me to be accurate. I lived in Beirut from 1980 to 84 and 94 to 98. Where he recorded events I was close to, I feel he has been truthful. I derive a wry amusement that our paths must have crossed quite a lot: him trying to get close to terrible events and me trying to get away from them.

Anyway, it’s a variable book and gloomy enough to drain the smile off the most upbeat personality so I why do I mention it? The reason is that I think this book, and good reporting generally are excellent things for fiction writers to read. You may think that is surprising. After all, surely shouldn’t fiction writers read fiction? Perhaps, but don’t overlook good reportage. Let me explain why.

In a way, what we are trying to do is tell stories in a manner that involves the reader with an economy of words. Now in the case of what is called ‘speculative fiction’, and I suppose also historical fiction, we are struggling to tell stories of people and events who are distanced from our readers by time, space or alien cultures. Despite this we want people to identify with our heroes and villains. We want to make them, and their plight, seem real. And furthermore, most of us are trying to do it with an economy of words; we cannot afford to spend a page describing a space ship or a castle, we need to move on and tell the story.

It strikes me that reporters, particularly foreign correspondents, face similar dilemmas. In very limited words, they have to tell us about a situation which may be very remote. Most of us do not know what it is like to be an observer of an utterly chaotic firefight or a shabby bureaucratic fix-up in some sweaty, dusty part of the Middle East. Reporters have to make it real. They have to make us care about the Iranian or the Iraqi suddenly face-to-face with death. They have to tell it in such a way that even if we are reading it while eating our cornflakes or waiting for our train, it sticks in our mind. They have to stay fresh and shun clichés. And this is what Fisk is supreme at. Whatever his merits as historian, he is a very gifted observer. With a rare economy of words he can set the scene, portray a character and involve us. Sometimes against our will, he drags us into the shabby, shameful mess of it all.

And here there is another point. Where Fisk gets his morality from I have not yet found. He is no Christian. But the book exudes morality: there a righteous indignation that runs throughout it. You may argue that in places it is unbalanced, or even misdirected, but it is there. And not to be angry about what has transpired in the Middle East in the last 30 years would be a terrible thing. And that’s something else that we need more of in our Christian fiction; a burning anger with evil and injustice.

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