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Novelists as experts

Shortly after my novel The Scattering was published, a political magazine in India asked if I would write a nonfiction article on the genocide of the Baherero in Namibia.

I promptly said no and referred them to the correct people, the many academics and activists who have made it their life’s work to know about that subject.

I am a storyteller. My concern is a good story. I want to take characters I have made up in my head and throw them into situations I have also made up, and see what happens. I know quite a bit about that, at least the way I do it, and that is about it.

Publicists from publishing houses often think that getting their novelists to write about topics, in nonfiction articles tangentially associated to their novel, might be a way to sell more novels. I have no statistics on this but I feel almost certain it does not.

Already when you go to literary festivals as a published novelist you often get thrown on panels with huge names: “historical perspectives, a woman’s view” or “genocide and love”. You get a facilitator who takes those topics seriously and he will be asking you questions that you really have no business answering.

Most writers just want to talk about their book and hopefully sell a few if they can, they do not want to be positioned as experts on anything. I have learned it is perfectly okay to not answer someone’s question; I either ignore it completely and speak about what I want, or keep quiet.

The other day after the horrendous mass shooting in Las Vegas, I found a panel discussion about gun control on TV and was surprised to see Lionel Shriver, the author of the novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, on the panel. Her novel is about a mass killing at a school.

A Google search shows that this is not the first time that Shriver has been pulled out and plonked on panels to

discuss gun control. In 2006 she wrote an article for The Independent about doing the rounds of TV and radio after a mass shooting in Pennsylvania. Back then she still held my view that novelists are not experts and should not pose as if they are when she said, “As the author of the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was a little embarrassed to be touted as an authority on school shootings, just because I had made one up.”

But the other day on CNN she did not seem embarrassed anymore, but I was - on her behalf. These mass shootings and the gun control debate that always follows one in the USA are problematic and complex issues. When Shriver sits on the panel and says that the bulk of the guns bought in the USA are used by white men to commit suicide and that maybe this helps to solve the mass shooting problem since they are exclusively committed by white men, I think we have a serious problem. And, at least for me, it does not make me want to buy her novel; it actually has the opposite effect.

Some years ago I saw author SA Patridge being interviewed at the Cape Town Book Fair about her YA book Fuse, which is also about school killings among other things. The person interviewing her asked her what she thought caused school killings.

Her answer has guided me on this minefield called “the writer’s journey”. She told the woman that she has no idea, she’s an author, she wrote a novel. And that is it. I am not undermining the work, including research that fiction writers do, but little is gained by appearing to be an expert when you are not - and a lot can be lost.

Its all I write



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