A friend of mine was lunching with a Scandinavian author a while back. At one point, the writer joked: “But that’s enough of me talking about myself. What do YOU think of me?”

Unlike that writer, I don’t care what you think of me. Don’t be offended – I don’t care what I think about other people, either. The more I write, the more I realize that I’m interested in myself alone.

That, I believe, is the necessary focus of all art – even if its final aim is to turn that inward look out toward the reader, the viewer, the listener. Art is flawed unless it focuses on the artist’s relationship with the world around him – through the narrator’s voice, in the case of a novelist.<!--more-->

I’ve been considering this question for a while, but it came to the fore last week after I spoke to an American group visiting Jerusalem. Mimi Schwartz, a writer of creative nonfiction, approached me after the event. She was kind enough to say that my long tenure here in Jerusalem – next month it’ll be 14 years – gave me a valuable perspective on the place. She suggested I write a memoir, in between my crime novels, because it would allow me “to bear witness.”

When I think of writing nonfiction about my experiences here, I tend to view the likely outcome as being David Sedaris-style essays telling amusing tales or a one-man-show in a similar vein. I don’t think that’s quite what Mimi had in mind. (She seemed like a lady of broad curiosity. I don’t think she’d be upset.)

I don’t want to “bear witness.” What I’ve witnessed in the Middle East, well, none of it seems to have any value, frankly, unless I can tell you how I feel about it. Otherwise it’s just a litany of body parts and angry people and failed politics and disappointing lives.

I don’t mean to suggest that art has to be uplifting. But it has to open reality out, spread it wider than the small scope of journalism. That’s why much photography often seems to me to be the sneaky little charlatan of the arts world, because it’s so frequently done for the eye-catching cool beloved of ad-men or with an empty-eyed blandness.

By the same token, art may descend too far beyond the personal. The solipsistic crap that passes for contemporary art is the flipside of the banality of the mediocre photographer.

So all (bearable) art is, in a sense, bearing witness. Because it must be based firmly in something real. If it isn’t based in something real, then it doesn’t come as a reaction on the part of the artist to a real experience – and there’ll be something about it that tips the reader or viewer to the fact that the artist is lieing about or obscuring himself.

My four novels about Omar Yussef, a Palestinian detective, obviously have an element based in reality, because Omar is a way for me to unfold the scenes and emotions through which I’ve lived these past 14 years. But my next novel, which is to be about the death of Mozart, will just as surely be based in my experience of how people react to a loss and the dirty reality that’s likely to lie behind a sudden death.

To do my bit of bearing witness, I plan to stick to fiction. It’s closer to the real truth.

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Comment by John McFetridge on May 7, 2010 at 12:59am
Yes, I agree, too. About being out of sync, what I've discovered is that it's great if you can find a small part of the world where you feel in sync. Maybe you'd always like it to be a bit bigger part of the world, but you have to be true to your own truth.
Comment by I. J. Parker on May 7, 2010 at 12:13am
Re final sentence: I absolutely agree.

However, while one's relationship to one's work is the primary and frequently immutable interest, it is rather nice to discover that one isn't totally out of sync with the rest of the world. I do care very much about what readers think. On the other hand, what readers, agents, and editors think doesn't necessarily make me change what I have written.

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