Fiction, morality and Nutella

Among my many and varied ponderings this week, the most pressing has been on the interplay between fiction writing and morality. If this sounds pretentious (and, lawks-a-Lordy, I think it just might) then it's worth noting, briefly, that I'm on holiday in a converted bread oven in the Loire Valley, and my other wide-eyed ponderings have been: Jeez, this is quite a small house but it must have been a really huge stove; wow, I never knew menhirs actually existed outside of those Asterix books; and, mmm, Nutella.

Anyhow: fiction writing and morality it is. In the past few weeks this topic has been much in the news. We've seen Irvine Welsh accused of misogyny after penning a suspect sex scene in his latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Then there's been Günter Grass's admission, in his autobiography, that, despite his renunciations of Germany's Nazi past (in his fiction and beyond), he was drafted as a teen-ager and served - without committing any war crimes - in the Waffen SS. This has prompted a host of questions, not least: "Why did he wait until now to reveal this?" (Dark mutterings suggest simply to sell more copies of his autobiography.) And how does this reflect on his writing? Can someone be seen as a moral arbiter if their past conceals such a dirty secret, especially one so implicitly related to the object of their ire?

In both cases, although they are different sides of the coin (Welsh is called a misogynist because of something he's written; Grass's writing is questioned because of something he's done) the fiction and the writer are understood to be in some sense continuous. This is neither surprising nor really inaccurate: of all the creative arts, fiction writing is probably the one in which the artist's personality, ideals and outlook are most explicitly expressed.

I am not suggesting that all novels are autobiographical, but rather that they are all ego-driven. To have a positive response to a blank page, a response that springs from your own imagination and can power along for at least 200 pages, demands an intense interest in exploring your own psyche and what you see in the world around you, as well as a conviction that your personality and thoughts are fascinating enough to compel others' interest. If that's not ego-driven, what is?

It is also true that fiction expresses an edited version of our outlook, and an idealised one. We might depict hideous subjects or people or incidents, but these are dreamed up, included or rejected carefully, to communicate some essential truth about how we see ourselves and the world.

Which is why it's hard to dismiss altogether the accusations of misogyny against Irvine Welsh, whose book includes a scene in which an ancient woman demands sex from a young man and is subsequently described as having a "ludicrously extended clitoris" and an incontinence pad full of "faecal matter". Welsh has rebutted his critics by saying that he's not a misogynist but a misanthropist, but this doesn't actually rule out hatred of women - it simply avoids hierarchies of hatred by adding men and children to the party, too.

When it comes to Günter Grass, the secret of his past seems not to detract from the morality of his fiction, but to have informed it, consciously. The books remain the same; we just have more of an insight into the mind they grew from, and a sense that they might not have been so subtle or intense if he hadn't been trying to square his idealised moral outlook with the nasty reality of his teenage past. All of us can believe intensely in one thing and do or have done another, and the best fiction therefore doesn't deal with simple moral homilies but moral complexities. This is probably why many of the best writers and artists turn out to have lived such turbulent, contradictory, and even hypocritical, lives.

Grass's fiction is just as vital as it ever was. Unfortunately, however, this doesn't let him off the hook. Over the years Grass has been set up, outside of his fiction, as a moral arbiter for the German people, which has included him railing against Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl's 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where nearly 50 Waffen SS soldiers are buried. Seen in the light of his secret past, his behaviour at that time occasionally bordered on the ridiculous.

Grass's personal standing as a moral touchstone has been expunged. And yet, in time, people will probably appre ciate his books again. Because, for their work to be worthwhile, writers don't have to be morally perfect in their personal behaviour; they just have to be morally complex in their thinking. Now I'm off to find another menhir . . .

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

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