There’s been lots of talk about reality at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. Christos Tsiolkas, best-selling Australian author of The Slap, criticised a collection of European short stories he’d been given, calling them ‘dry and academic’ and complaining that ‘They don’t talk about the real.’ David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto draws an unfavourable comparison between contemporary fiction and what he regards as more random, spontaneous and unfettered forms such as prose poems, collage, stand-up comedy, graffiti, documentary, essays and performance art. ‘Something has happened to my imagination,’ he says, ‘which can no longer yield to the embrace of novelistic form.’
I’m not sure I understand the dichotomy. Surely real life, as it is presented in the news, the blogosphere, on Facebook and Twitter, is mediated, filtered and processed to some degree. And surely all fiction, even a fantastical flight of the imagination, contains a measure of reality. And what does Shields mean by ‘novelistic form’ anyway? Novelists have been blurring the line between fiction and reality since Daniel Defoe published The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Jeanette Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an interesting recent example. At this year’s Book Festival event to celebrate the novel’s twenty-fifth anniversary Winterson told her audience that she often gets asked which parts of the book are real and which are made up. She can’t understand why readers can’t accept that the novel is a fictionalised account of her early life. Does knowing what really happened and what didn’t make parts of the book seem less authentic, less satisfying than others?
In another Book Festival session Jackie Kay read from her latest work Red Dust Road, which deals with her experiences of meeting with her birth parents. Kay admitted that she thinks of her new book as a sequel to The Adoption Papers, her first collection of poetry, which imagines the voices of an adopted child, her adoptive mother and her birth mother. Red Dust Road may be written as a memoir, but it sparkles with the same humour and poignancy as Kay’s earlier work of the imagination.
And many contemporary novelists have their imaginations stirred by real-life events. Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize-nominated Room, for instance, was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, but creates a persuasive fictional world viewed through the eyes of the imprisoned young woman’s five-year-old child.
Whether it’s in politics or in literature, we seem to have become more personality driven. Perhaps that’s why some readers struggle to draw distinctions between fiction and an author’s life. I recently heard a story (which I’ve no reason to disbelieve) about a female writer who was advised by an editor to turn her autobiographical novel into a memoir. The resulting book was a bestseller and the author made a lot of money, attracting all the scrutiny that goes with putting your life, warts and all, into the public domain.
Interestingly very few journalists asked her which bits were real and which were exaggerated, understated, slowed-down, speeded-up or rounded off for the sake of the narrative. But writers of fiction are not accorded the same benefit of the doubt. Christos Tsiolkas (him again) was particularly miffed when critics reviewing The Slap accused him of misogyny. ‘It's not a misogynistic book,’ he countered, ‘it's about infantile men who are misogynistic.’
I first wanted to be a writer after my parents gave me a book of fairy tales for my fifth birthday called A Child’s Treasury of Classics. Some of these had happy Hollywood endings but many of them were frightening and discomfiting. One young protagonist in a particularly Grim(m) tale was even turned into black puddings. Reading these stories, our house became a castle and the small patch of grass at the back became a wild, tangled wood.
I don’t often write about castles and woods and witches these days. But I still believe in fairy tales and I still believe in the power of fiction to tell the truth.