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Why Can't the Hero of an English Novel Ever Be 'Right Wing'?

29/05/2013 16:28 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

When my second novel was named "book of the month" by a prestigious literary organisation three years ago, a title previously won by such luminaries as Hilary Mantel and Cormac McCarthy, I imagined there would be a corresponding boost to sales and in terms of reviews.

Instead, my novel, "Out of Office", sank without trace. Not one national newspaper gave the book even a negative review; it flounders somewhere around the million mark on Amazon. My publisher, Legend, who had given me a respectable advance, was disappointed and puzzled. It may not be Proust, but overall everyone, including several other authors, thought the book was thought-provoking, powerful and funny - so what was the problem?

Then it struck me: the novel's protagonist, Christian Hook, was "right wing". Or rather, he is a typical liberal, leftie Londoner, who after a series of failed terrorist attacks in the capital finds himself sympathising with an organisation which bears some resemblance to the EDL - but unlike the EDL, with a paramilitary wing.

Soon Hook questions his own enlightened values, and those of his equally right-on friends and family: how can they support anyone who commits atrocities in the name of any religion, and Islam in particular? Does criticising an ideology which rails against women, homosexuals and atheism make you "right wing?" What was it, he thinks when he visits the site of a new East End mosque, Orwell said in Homage to Catalonia about blowing up all the churches?

As the book progresses and Hook finds himself sympathising with the anti-Islamic group, while politicians and liberals (including his own wife and brother) line up to excuse the atrocities carried out by Islamists, he becomes more and more confused:

"Coming from a family where the left wing position was non-negotiable, Hook's beginning to find the new order somewhat confusing. He's always believed that to be left wing you need to support equality, freedom and tolerance towards other peoples.

"Multi-culturalism for the left, it now seems to Hook, means tolerating intolerance; promoting mono-culturalism; closing one's eyes, ears and mouths to the unspeakable opinions of one's new comrades, the cultists, the mediaevalists, the paranoid and deluded."

Last week's appalling events in Woolwich brought back the same feelings of confusion I have felt for some years now and tried to fictionalise in my book. As someone from a long line of left-leaning socialist atheists, I feel deeply uncomfortable when religion takes centre stage, and particularly when we're told we must respect the religious views of people who seem to wish us ill.

Although Muslim groups were quick to condemn the Woolwich atrocity - probably feeling under pressure to do so - was it factually correct for PM David Cameron to state that "there is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act"? Will debatable statements like that really preserve the peace or simply give groups like the EDL a sense that they are the only ones telling it like it is?

Still, perhaps I'm being naive about the EDL - and about literature. For me the best writing should challenge, and provoke, and go against the grain. I struggle to recall a contemporary novel by an English author whose hero is "right wing" - whatever THAT means. Again and again, it seems, the author falls back on cosy assumption and passive certitude. Where is the anger, where is the doubt - where is the English Houellebecq?