• Jake Lynch

The pleasure of seeing it

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

A Peace Journalist and academic researcher turns from fact to fiction

By Jake Lynch


The emergence of the novel in Enlightenment Europe is attributed with a role in promoting and spreading support for human rights, as increasing public literacy enabled growing numbers of readers to empathise with both fictional characters and fellow human beings from outside their own immediate family and social circle. After human rights were eventually codified in the Universal Declaration of 1948, the rapid expansion of news ensured that violations would become known to global audiences, thereby exerting public pressure for effective action to end them. In today’s mediascapes, however, the social premium on facticity has diminished, as professional journalism in mainstream media has struggled to maintain its authority and appeal. Reasons for this include not only media transformation and splintering of audiences associated with new technologies, this article argues, but also the continuing salience of structural constraints, which ensure strategic silences and distortions over key issues. In this context, concern over human rights within symbolic domains may find expression in imaginative literature, as part of a ‘fictive turn’. As an example, the article considers a growing sub-genre of contemporary English novels, namely historical mystery thrillers set in the Restoration period of the late 17thCentury: one to which the author has contributed in person with a newly published work. Meanwhile, publishing is undergoing its own technology-driven transformation, in which reader preferences are, in turn, exerting an increasingly direct influence on the nature and content of published fiction. Pull these threads together, it is argued, and the potential emerges for novel-reading publics to form a social reservoir of concern for human rights as a factor in political process.

Key words: Fiction; journalism; human rights; empathy.


The announcement by President Donald Trump that he was pulling US troops out of Syria was greeted by a chorus of disapproval and derision, from a range of political and security sources with, it seemed, ready access to media in the US and allied countries. A search of the Factiva database of news reports, using the terms “Trump AND Syria,” returned 1,045 results for December 19th, 2018. Arranging the results in chronological order (oldest, that is to say earliest, first) a transcript of CNN’s Erin Burnett Outfrontprogramme appears at No 2 on the list, reporting that Republicans in Congress were “furious.” The introductory sequence featured video clips from three Senators – Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio and Bob Corker – all senior figures from Senate Foreign Affairs or Defense Committees, and all criticising the announcement. “Now, we’re dramatically less safe,” Graham said.

Early reactions from Democrats picked up a similar theme, in statements released through the US Fed News service. Representative Eliot Engel, a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, complained: “This move also totally cedes influence to America’s adversaries.” And Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania bemoaned the strategic gain for Moscow from a US troop withdrawal: “President Trump’s Russia-first policy in the Middle East is harming US national security.”

In London, early editions of the following day’s national newspapers appear in the Factiva list, with coverage cued largely by responses from figures in the UK government. These would have been sourced in many cases, no doubt, from the Press Association news agency, which carried quotes from Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood. In response to Trump’s claim that Islamic State had been decisively defeated in Syria, Ellwood said: “I strongly disagree. It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive” (in Hughes, 2018). The same wire quoted a UK Government spokesman (sic): “This Government will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people and our allies and partners.”

The latter formulation refers to a fundamental tenet of what has been called the “dominant conversation about security in the UK” (Ammerdown, 2016: 10),that the use of force in faraway theatres of war is seen as safeguarding British people at home. On this, there is, indeed, a readily identifiable ‘establishment view’ in Britain, which is – as on most military and security issues – an offshoot of its US parent. The same view can be glimpsed in the remarks by Senators Graham and Casey, spanning the aisle on Capitol Hill, quoted above.

Journalism in US and UK mainstream news generally reproduces this view as a norm, or yardstick against which others should be judged – on the rare occasions when they are permitted a look-in. This is to be expected, given the copiously documented record of research into the nature and transmission of influences on news content. The pattern of coverage revealed in the Factiva sample reflects the representational conventions identified by, for instance, Bennett’s Indexing Model (1990), which sees the range of perspectives commonly included in news treatments as restricted to the extent of “elite discord”; and Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (2002), with its five “filters” ranging from the outright exertion of proprietorial interests to the ideology of (then) anti-communism, which many commentators perceive as having now been succeeded by the ‘war on terrorism.’

The still-widespread application of these conventions means that journalism generally excludes alternative views – even those whose attestation and salience have steadily grown as events have unfolded – as well as large portions of public opinion in each country (and other allied countries involved in so-called ‘global security’ operations such as in Syria). In the latter case, opposition to the sustained deployment of troops abroad is inchoate, and may surface only occasionally when something happens to remind people of it, but it is a political fact that acts as a brake on policy-makers (Lynch, 2017). In the former case, specialist analysis from outside the military and security establishment tends to reverse the sequence of cause and consequence in the dominant narrative (ibid.). The emergence of Islamic State, or Daesh, in the first place is instead – in such analysis – attributed as an unintended consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq from 2003. The use of coercive power overseas does not make the publics of troop-supplying countries safer on the ‘home front’, as claimed – but instead puts them into greater danger.

Journalism discredited?

The systematic exclusion of this view puts journalism at a disadvantage. The signature claim of news on audience attention is as a report of the facts. This case, however, offers a strong reminder of Gaye Tuchman’s withering critique, in a landmark study of US newsroom procedures: “The acceptance of representational conventions as facticity renders reality vulnerable to manipulation” (1978: 109).

Unburdened of these conventions, fictional forms are free to join the dots. So, in the long-running syndicated television drama, Homeland, for instance, the terrorist threat to the US is seen to have been caused by America’s own actions. The storyline of the first two series follows Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, who escapes from captivity by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Whilst there – it is subsequently revealed – he came to care for the teenage son of his captor. The boy was then killed in a US drone strike, albeit officially denied. This leads Brody to defect to Al Qaeda in secret, and join a plot to kill senior politicians and military officers in Washington. The plot fails at the last minute when he decides not to detonate his suicide vest, but the point is that the process recreated in fiction fills the gap left in the news.

Trump’s démarchecame in furtherance of his ‘America First’ policy, conceived to appeal to his political ‘base’, made up of voters who appear to reject reported facts. The Federal Government was partially suspended, at the time of writing, because Congress refused funding for a wall along the Mexican border, supposedly to keep out illegal immigrants and, Trump claimed, “terrorists.” In the battle to shift blame for the shutdown, Democrats pointed to evidence that irregular border crossings were at 20-year lows; that official reports scotched claims of “terrorist” crossings, and that most illegal aliens in the US were visa over-stayers who had arrived by air. ‘America First’ is also an alternative conception of national interests to the dominant view which has the US acting, in Trump’s own words, as “policeman to the world.” It was left to Bob Koehler – a columnist who stepped out of mainstream media to find his own voice – to point out that the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, could do without the kind of policing the US and its allies have been administering:

The pursuit of short-term national interests and, indeed, war itself — particularly the wars fomented, underwritten and armed by the United States over the last two decades — are the primary cause of global instability and the upsurge of terrorism (Koehler, 2019).

The instability caused by attempts to overthrow and/or undermine governments in Iraq, Syria, Libya and others is the primary cause of the widespread denial of human rights in today’s world. As a European Union research study found: “Human rights violations emerge primarily as a result of violent conflict” (Carrasco et al, 2014: 60). A significant consequence of these violations is the unprecedented number of refugees – people seeking safe haven in which to enjoy their human rights. Those heading through Mexico towards the US in the so-called ‘caravan’ of November 2018 – which Trump labelled an “invasion” – were said to have fled their homes in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. As a Canadian news report at the time pointed out: “All three of these countries have long been grappling with poverty, political instability and organized crime and violence. The roots of many of these conflicts can be traced back to years-old civil wars” (Abedi, 2018). The reporter was seemingly constrained by the same conventions from stating the obvious: in all these wars, too, the US played a major fomenting, underwriting and arming role.

The pervasiveness of news has often been seen as a check on power and a means of “mobilising shame” (Baehr, 1996) to enable human rights violations to stir public consciousness and generate political pressure for change. But the strategic silences of journalism in mainstream media, borne of familiar structural influences on news content, prohibit the naming of US militarism as the primary menace to human rights, thus forestalling, weakening and compromising any such pressure. On the other hand is a president whose attitude to the roles and responsibilities of American troops is at odds with the military and foreign policy establishment. At the same time, however, Trump has made clear his contempt both for factual reporting and for human rights: attitudes visible in his positions on a range of other issues since taking office and arguably converging in his indifference to the Saudi murder of Washington Postjournalist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018. In this impoverished context, it is worth considering the potential for symbolic resources for human rights to be built up in domains other than the factual reporting of public affairs.

The turn to fiction?

The emergence and spread of narrative fiction has been identified as a factor in the rise in Europe, in the eighteenth century, of “moral sentimentalism” (Keen, 2006: 207). “How selfish soever man may be supposed”, Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Stephen Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature – his thesis that violence is gradually receding in human history – considers the novel a key “empathy technology,” depending on and activating our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a character through the ups and downs of a narrative arc. The resulting upsurge of capacity for fellow-feeling beyond one’s immediate family and social circle, among publics in countries where literacy became more widely distributed and a market for novels thus emerged, helped to “set off the Humanitarian Revolution” associated with the European Enlightenment (Pinker, 2011: 174). How was this capacity transmitted into political process? Readers of novels also formed the key audience for pamphlets concerning such topics as slavery on British-owned sugar plantations, for instance – stirring empathy for ‘real characters’ and thereby generating public pressure for abolition. How far could this historical phenomenon be reprised in our own time? What potential exists today for a ‘fictive turn’ in the mobilisation of concern and support for human rights?

Suzanne Keen (2006) puts forward a theory of narrative empathy in fiction, which she divides into several categories. “Authors’ empathy” may denote the favourable presentation of leading characters, whereas “readers’ empathy” takes place when “unusual or striking representations promote foregrounding” of particular concerns. The latter can include what she calls “situational empathy”, in which readers recognise, in the situation presented in a novel, aspects of their own experiences. This kind of empathy may arise due to “chance relevance to particular historical, economic, cultural, or social circumstances, either in the moment of first publication or in later times, fortuitously anticipated or prophetically foreseen by the novelist” (2006: 214). Keen does not explicitly consider historical novels. In such cases, of course, the relevance may arise in connection with earlier times – not through good fortune or prophetic ability, so much as artful juxtaposition. “Historical fiction is set inthe past,” James Aitcheson told last year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival, while discussing his latest novel, The Harrowing, set in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066 (Aitcheson, 2017) – “but it is not necessarily aboutthe past.”

My own debut in fiction is a detective story set in the English Restoration of the 17thCentury – a sub-genre that seems to be enjoying a recent revival. In recent additions to this sub-genre, parallels with our own time abound. Investigators gather evidence and ply it against powerful interests, taking their cue from the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the time. “Faced with a hypothesis”, James Marwood, the main protagonist of Andrew Taylor’s The Fire Courtreflects, “the gentlemen of the Royal Society put it to the test. I could do no better than follow their example” (Taylor, 2018: 196-7). A decade or so later than the action depicted by Taylor, sectarian hatreds were fomented – and exploited to serve a preconceived political agenda – in the ‘Popish Plot’, a claimed conspiracy by Jesuits to assassinate King Charles II. In The Road to Newgate, Kate Braithwaite (2018) brings to imaginative life the daring work of a journalist in exposing the Plot as a fraud – exposing himself, in the process, to threats and privations. And in my novel, Blood on the Stone(Lynch, 2019) an Oxford detective must prove the killing of an MP is not connected to factional intrigues, in order to save a young Catholic woman from a grisly ritualised murder.

Would that evidence – gathered by observation and processed by logical deduction – played a more decisive role today, notably in linking causes to effects in public debate, and in setting policy. But it often seems to be trumped (pun fully intended) by powerful interests: fossil fuel lobbies, in respect of scientific findings on climate change, say; or indeed the military and security establishment, ignoring all signs that armed coercion, far from enhancing our security, is in fact endangering it. For an equivalent of the persecution of ‘Papists’ in England after 1678, look no further than Brexit: driven by nationalist fantasies, and promulgated by none-too-subtle appeals to Islamophobia and the supposed ‘threat’ of 70 million Turks suddenly gaining immigration rights under EU rules. Trump’s case for his wall takes a similar form of fact-averse rabble-rousing.

Characters in all three of the novels mentioned above spend some time in coffee houses, then newly opening across Europe; regarded, in the landmark account by Jurgen Habermas (1984), as a prototypical form of the public sphere, emerging in the 17thCentury as the space between rulers and ruled, and supposedly a milieu for free and open political discussion. The public sphere of our own time has all too clearly been, in Habermas’ terms, structurally transformed: dominated by “cognitive-instrumentalist” rationality (1984: xi), based on “egocentric calculations of utility” (1984: 101). In today’s factual accounts, the answers are predictable because the conventions exclude all but a narrow range of privileged perspectives, thus circumscribing the questions in advance.

Back in fiction, “strong concord in authors’ empathy and readers’ empathy”, Keen argues, “can be a motivating force to move beyond literary response to prosocial action” (2006: 215). What if readers of historical mysteries, recognising the parallels briefly suggested above, thrill to the stories and wish for opportunities to apply the same principles for themselves? They can now exert greater agency within and through the field of publishing itself: one in which reader tastes, experiences and responses are now much more directly influential. The change has been enabled – as with journalism – by technologies that support a much more mutual and collaborative process of creation and appreciation between authors and their audiences. Reviews – posted on such commercial sites as Amazon GoodReads, as well as by proliferating bloggers – constitute a portion of the public sphere in which differences of social and intellectual status among the influencers are, as Habermas put it, bracketed out. “With the introduction of e-readers and online reading forums”, Albazaz (2016) reflects in an industry magazine, “suddenly people were not only reading, but engaging online, critiquing and discussing literature in group settings. Authors had a direct line of communication to readers and vice versa.” 

Publishers are experimenting with new methods of ‘front-loading’ reader preferences into books before they are produced. Such is the case with my own publisher, Unbound, which meets costs in advance through crowd-funding – thus eliminating the risk that a book may not make enough through sales to pay for its own publication. The appeal for Blood on the Stonewas explicitly aimed at readers wishing to join a prosocial endeavour: promoted, on the crowd-funding site, as the story of a detective who “defends justice and human rights… [against] prejudice and fury.” Among its launch events (planned at the time of writing) are benefit evenings for a group campaigning for Palestinian rights, and a children’s charity, respectively.

To attribute, to such an innocuous pastime as novel-reading, the capacity for exerting intentionally focused political influence, would strain credulity. It is in the surplus of meaning over intentionality that its potential inheres. Fiction; its social distribution – now with provision for sharing and connections multiplied by new technologies – and its contribution to public discourse in general, enter the construction of the broader symbolic context. That context can be made more propitious, by the mobilisation of readers’ empathy, for human rights as an organising principle in social and political responses. When advocates stand up for evidence and due process, in a range of settings; for nonviolent responses to conflict; for freedom of speech and assembly, or for the fair treatment of minorities, the degree of support they can expect to receive may depend to some extent on the imaginative experiences of their audience.


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