At uni, I read What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe on a module called Modern British Fiction from 1950. Anyone who has read said book will know there is hardly a more fitting book for such a module. It centres around Thatcherism – something which sits at the heart of much of Coe’s work.
Last week, I finished The Rain Before it Falls, also by Coe. It was a moving story about mothers and daughters with no political tropes in sight. Which left me wondering – can we draw such sweeping statements about an author’s style, or the things they write about?
We, as humans, have a preoccupation with putting neat constraints on everything. We love patterns, and concentrate on finding them in all contexts, even if frankly they don’t exist. And I think sometimes we can do that with writers. Coe, of course, does often write about political issues. But sometimes there really aren’t that many patterns. No one suspected J K Rowling was the writer whom pseudonym Robert Galbraith referred to. I have often bought a second or third novel by an author, only to find it was nothing like the first one I read.
I think what it boils down to is our humanity. We aren’t two-dimensional. We can think for ourselves, we build a pastiche of what it means to be us. We can like football and ballet simultaneously; enjoy getting sloshed down the pub but still fancy going to the opera; like going to the gym, but also stuffing our faces with KFC. And guess what? We can change. When writing my dissertation on McEwan it was noteworthy just how much his writing evolved throughout his career, to the point that some critics remarked we can scarcely think of him as the same writer at all.
So although the concept of what an author stands for will never go away, perhaps we should begin to treat each work with an element of discreteness. Because what one person wants to talk about one day, may be entirely different the next.