Is Anything Real?

Reader Logoby Paul Burman

When asked to state a preference in literature, it’s not uncommon for there to be some initial confusion between the terms ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. People sometimes say one when they mean the other. It’s because, I believe, ‘non-fiction’ is a counter-intuitive word. The use of ‘non’ as a prefix suggests that non-fiction is about something that isn’t and, therefore, fiction must be about something that is. The defining terms for the body of literature based on events that have actually happened, as distinct from imagined events that haven’t, becomes inverted. Add the neologism ‘faction’ to the mix (fiction which is built upon factual events or people) and... well, I’m not sure whether that makes things better or worse.

However, this isn’t the end of it. As readers, it seems, we can be a little perverse when it comes to what we expect of a work of non-fiction as opposed to a work of fiction. Given that all writing is an artificial construct, whether an author claims to be writing about their interpretation of actual events or about fantastic characters in a fantasy land, authors of memoirs and biographies are sometimes given a hard time if their interpretation of reality isn’t as absolute as others expect it to be. The moment the memoirist selects to write about one event but chooses to omit another event, or uses one string of words to describe an emotive response rather than words which might be less or more neutral, they are reconstructing and repainting reality. And this is how it must be. There are no absolutes here.

What is it we expect from a piece of writing? Would those critics who were outraged at discovering that James Frey’s ‘memoir’, A Million Little Pieces, was heavily padded/supported/reinforced with sections of fiction, have been similarly outraged if he’d promoted it as a work of fiction in the first place, only to later reveal that it was largely drawn from personal experience? Either way, did it make it a weaker or stronger piece of writing? It’s probably disingenuous to wonder whether publishers and readers make allowances or have expectations of a work of non-fiction that they wouldn’t have for a work of fiction – of course they do – but it’s certainly healthy to consider what we expect from each and why.

I’ve found myself thinking about the nature of fiction a good deal of late. So many people have responded to The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore by asking where I get my ideas from, how closely I’ve 'borrowed' characters, places and events from experience, and how absolutely is something ‘made up’, that I’ve inevitably begun reconsidering my understanding of fiction and the role of the story-teller.

Fiction may be more of an artificial construct than non-fiction, but in creating an imagined world and a set of experiences for a number of created characters, every writer draws on what they’ve learnt to understand even when they can’t draw on what they know. Directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, a fiction writer’s various views of the real world colours and shapes the creation of their imagined worlds. Maybe there’s something analogous about the work of an actor, who draws on experience, observations, and an ability to speculate and empathise and imagine, in order to convincingly portray a character whose story is not the same as his or her own personal story. But the actor never really is the character; the actor remains an actor. So it is with the writer of fiction.

We can tie ourselves in knots too easily at times, trying to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t. Inevitably, the purpose of the story-teller is to tell a convincing yarn and to entertain, and perhaps to say something about the world in which we find ourselves. Maybe it’s all real, or maybe nothing is.


Mike French said...

Great article - it's always strange when something is defined by what it's not - so non-fiction is a weird one. certainly in writing classes they tell you state things in the postive not the negative: it's far stronger. So I wonder why we don't call them Fact Books? Hmm ... no that sounds rubbish. Anyone help me out?

Stella said...

I think part of it is that we feel deceived by the initial label of the thing. When someone claims it's biography, I expect facts or at least an open admission when something is not verifiable or is purely the biographer's conjecture. But you're right that it's ironic that the same charges aren't leveled at stories which are supposedly fictional yet are really thinly veiled biographies.