Being a writer is not enough

Novelist Jonathan Coe talks about a writer’s ‘real motive’, the inspiration that prompted his latest novel, Middle England, and how literary festivals reflect national identity. Middle England has been commended for its sharp and politically pertinent tone and plot and concludes Jonathan Coe’s latest trilogy.  

What prompted you to write Middle England?

I wrote it to try and understand my own country because I had a very strong feeling in June 2016 that I didn’t understand it, or that the England I thought I knew didn’t really exist. But the real motive for writing is much more personal, which is to understand something about yourself, because all novels are novels of the interior if they’re worth anything. Everything comes back to a personal take.

How can literary festivals reflect and shape national identity?

Any conversation we can have around national identity is important these days and literary festivals are as good a place as any to have those conversations. You can have a conversation about the book which then becomes a conversation about national identity. It’s a more comfortable route in to the conversation and that is what we need, because we’ve become really bad at that recently.

Canonical books have certainly defined Englishness in the past two centuries. What I think is becoming hard to sustain now is the idea of a national writer which you sometimes hear people bandying about. I don’t think we’ll ever see a time again when a novelist can be said to be speaking for the whole country. Our identities are too fractured and too distinct. Which is as it should be. We won’t arrive at a sense of a single, cohesive national identity but we will achieve a better understanding of how complex our national identity is. I don’t like the idea that a writer can step forward and claim to be speaking for everybody. I can see why people subscribed to that idea in the past but I think it has had its day.

What do you like about Hay Festival?

Hay feels to me a more ideas-driven festival than it used to be and what’s great about it is the enthusiasm of the audiences. Not in the sense of starry-eyed enthusiasm to be in front of writers, but rather in the sense that they really want to hear what we have to say and what we have to write. Maybe to disagree with it. Maybe to reject it out of hand. My sense, and I’ve been coming here a long time going back to 1997, is that it seems to acquire more intellectual energy every time.

How does Hay Festival differ from other literary festivals?

I’ve been to many European festivals and they’re becoming more like Hay but they tend to be more reverential. I have very ambivalent feelings about that. It’s nice to be revered as a good writer, but I don’t necessarily believe in it. There is a kind of residual feeling in continental Europe that a writer is a kind of prophet, a kind of seer. Maybe there are writers like that but there is a sense with the British audience that being a writer is not enough. You have to earn their respect in other ways as well. The act of writing alone doesn’t and shouldn’t earn you that respect.

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Jonathan Coe talked to Sarfraz Manzoor at Hay Festival on Sunday 26 May. Listen to highlights of the Festival on  Hay Player.