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Is writing a moral act?

28 June 2004

Professor Alexander McCall Smith is an unlikely popular author. Chairman of the British Medical Ethics Committee, visiting professor at SMU Law School and Professor of Law at Edinburgh University, a publisher and the author of over 50 books of a mostly much more weighty nature, he is a busy academic who turned to writing detective stories for light relief and to help him relax. He has drawn on his own upbringing in Bulawayo to recreate Botswana, one of the most stable and robust of African countries. As he writes at up to 1,000 words an hour, he has effortlessly produced five novels in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, starring his heroine Precious Ramotswe.

In writing about his fellow-Scot Irvine Welsh, whom he doesn't approve of, he has said: 'I feel that writing is a moral act. I feel that those who portray an aggressive, vulgar, debased attitude towards life are conniving in that life, and I think publishers should reject them.' This is surely a deeply unfashionable approach, which makes it all the more extraordinary that McCall Smith has been so successful. But something about his writing touches a chord. It's probably his optimism and his desire to believe the best of people. His heroine Mma Ramotswe is not a fool, but she does believe that practical common sense is the right approach to life and the only way to solve problems. Perhaps that's just a very reassuring approach in these times of shifting sands obscuring right and wrong. It's certainly a message that has been welcomed all over the world and has lifted the author's unique books effortlessly into the bestseller lists.