Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.
Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laurelled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing. Bad writers think: “I want to write this.” Good writers think: “This is being written.”
To go from being a competent writer to being a great writer, I think you have to risk being – or risk being seen as – a bad writer. Competence is deadly because it prevents the writer risking the humiliation that they will need to risk before they pass beyond competence. To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.
If you ask a book reviewer or look at any of the “Best Book” lists compiled by critics, you would say War and Peace. But what if you asked everyday readers on the Internet?
In fairy tales, magical seeds grow into beanstalks, climbing through clouds into giants’ houses full of treasures and gold, lifting the hero away from the quotidian concerns of taking care of cows and avoiding starvation. The characters of Scarlett Thomas’s new novel, “The Seed Collectors,” start in those elevated regions, though, comfortably beyond any real worry about money or material needs. Their magic seeds have to go to greater lengths: providing an escape from existence and self, which by the end of the novel does indeed come to seem like a reasonable choice.
The inmates learn how to cook and serve the paying public, who have applied in advance and received security clearance. Each diner must bring a passport or driving licence and be fingerprinted. Tipping and mobile phones are banned, which makes for a pleasant dining room.