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What’s going on?

Yes, What’s Going On is a classic Marvin Gaye song. It raises interesting questions too for writers.

In the Liverpool where I grew up, the question became What’s the script? or What’s the dance? or What’s the score? Frequent questions because of our insatiable love of gossip. The latter is part of our need to feel we understand the world. On an everyday basis, we like simple answers to complex questions. We like to assign goodies and baddies to the right category or box. We enjoy the certainty our ‘understanding’ gives us. It keeps us safe.

Many writers work with this in mind and produce best selling books containing two-dimensional cut-out characters living in a two-dimensional world. And nothing wrong with that! I devour crime fiction for that good feeling, the pleasure of narrative which keeps things simple. True, after a crime there must be the questions of what went on or who dunnit. Journalists claim to explain what’s going on in the world. But we do like it easy and simple.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann (in his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou) has this to say:

Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire….

….The world winks at dishonesty. the world does not call it dishonesty.

Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.

One way of reframing this would be to say we don’t really want to know what’s going on, don’t want to think, don’t want to see truth as complex.

Yet, it’s claimed, there is much truth in literature. The more ‘literary’ writers deal with philosophical and psychological issues that recognise the difficulties. What’s going on in an individual’s life, a family’s, a nation’s, a world’s is the raw material and writerly perception is the tool for extracting part of it, craft the tool for shaping it. For some writers, life is an immensely complex puzzle, always fascinating, never empty.

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