Lies in nonfiction/truth in fiction

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The beaten track...

The beaten track…

We’ve taken to listening to the radio when we eat dinner and usually the only channel that will tune in properly is BBC Radio 3. It tends to be classical music, but one Sunday a few weeks ago my attention was caught by the programme that was on – Way off the Beaten Track, presented by Stephen Smith. During the show Smith examined a number of writers who have play fast and loose with the truth and asks – does it really matter?

It’s something I’ve thought about in the past because it’s an issue that sometimes crops up in my own writing. For instance, I have written a lot about my garden back in Manchester. My neighbour’s garden extends along and down behind our garden, and next to it is a patch of land belonging to a church. When I write about the green space behind my garden rather than describing it as my neighbour’s garden that extends behind ours and some land that belongs to the church I simply refer to it as the field. It’s not really a field, but does a simplifications like this count as bending the truth?

I have no qualms about doing this, ultimately I am a writer and I want to create pieces of writing that are enjoyable and well-written. If the writing gets too bogged down in detail then I need to simply things. As long as I’m not completely inventing then I’m okay with that.

One of my favourite works of nonfiction is The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Baker wrote the book as though the events take place over a single year, but it is actually a conglomeration of a number of years spent stalking the peregrine. I’ve always thought that this is perfectly acceptable. Baker spent a number of years collecting the material for his book and it was easier to simply present it in the form of one year.

However, Stephen Smith mentioned a writer called Norman Lewis who wrote two pieces about Seville. They were written 3 years apart and the results were very different. It made me wonder how much a book can change over the course of being written and how much Baker’s later experiences probably informed his re-telling of those earlier years. Still, I’m not sure this means that Baker is bending the truth.

In another of Lewis’s books, Voices of the Old Sea, Lewis describes meeting a Spanish aristocrat, Don Alberto, but this distinguished Spanish se├▒or was fictional and probably based on a number of different people that Lewis encountered on his travels. He condensed for simplicities sake, like Baker, but somehow it seems much more dishonest when it’s people condensed into a person.

The more I think about it, the more it does seem slightly odd that we would think it dishonest if a nonfiction writer makes things up or bends the truth, when no one questions the fact that fiction is often based at least in part on the author’s experiences. I know a lot of my fiction is heavily based on real events, but then, does this make it any less fiction? Is it somehow dishonest to couch real life events in fictional worlds and characters. I don’t think it is. There are certain events I choose to couch in fiction precisely because they are true, because they are so close to the bone.

Sometimes being there doesn’t mean you can necessarily report all the facts, sometimes you can become so immersed in a place that it is difficult to step far enough back to write about it. Perhaps fiction is a way of getting round that. Or perhaps it is simply a way of filling in the gaps. Perhaps, like Bruce Chatwin, some travel writer’s are simply mythomanes, who deliberately invent because they never really set out to write nonfiction in the first place.

Ultimately though I think the problem is more with the labels. Books don’t fit into neat categories.┬áNonfiction/fiction doesn’t necessarily mean true/not true. After all:

The truth is an illusion, you can never arrive at it.

N.B. if radio isn’t your thing, Stephen Smith also summarised the show for the BBC News Magazine: When travel writing is off the beaten track.

0 thoughts on “Lies in nonfiction/truth in fiction”

  1. This is really interesting, and I’m glad you’ve brought it up because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

    There seems to be a huge surge in discussion about creative nonfiction lately, a concept I sort of struggle to grasp. I understand it when I read it, I could probably identify a piece of createive nonfiction (probably!) but the thought of trying to write some myself paralyses me. I can’t imagine writing a straight up account of something in a creative manner that doesn’t invent anything. I’m too aware of inventing feelings, sensations, atmosphere; the kind of thing that comes to me naturally when I write fiction.

    But the other point you talk about is particularly interesting to me, as the last two short stories I’ve written have been heavily based on my own experiences and memories. At the moment (writing in my notebook!) I’m just letting the memories spill out and sprawl wherever they want to, and in editing I’ll try to curb the realism, to fold it into the shape of a character who isn’t quite me. I’m happy to use my experiences as inspiration, even to translate some of them quite clearly for another character. But if I were to just sit and write them, as a memoir or something, I feel like they wouldn’t seem as valid. Maybe it says more about me, that I connect better with imaginary people? I don’t think that’s it but it might be part of it!

    1. I’m glad it spoke to you!

      To be honest despite the fact that I would say I primarily write creative nonfiction, I struggle to explain it to people. The best way I can think to explain it is that like nonficition you’re conveying facts, but the creative part is how you felt about those facts. So in nature writing you might write about visiting a particular landscape, but unlike with straight-up nonfiction you, the writer, are very much present in the writing. It is tempting sometimes to slip in to inventing, I know what you mean, it’s something that comes naturally to me too. And actually I’m quite interested in writing something that is a cross over of the two genres because a lot of the time my responses to landscapes are ideas for fictional stories. So I think it would be interesting to weave those stories into a piece of creative nonficition, I’m just not sure how to go about it!

      I do think sometimes it’s just easier to write about your own experiences with a fictional twist. Somehow it’s easier to put those thoughts and feelings into another person. And I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve heard some writers saying that if you can’t invent and create new worlds and completely new characters then you’re not a very good writer, but I don’t agree with that. Even fantasy/sci-fi writers who in a sense are seen as the paradigm of imagined writing are, I have to imagine, informed by their experiences.

      Interesting stuff!

  2. Very interesting piece, Naomi!

    I’d a discussion today relating to more scientific accounts of truth. It came tangentially from a discussion of the suggested pleonasm: ‘very random’.

    The discussion largely circled around the idea of there being one totally random quality, such that everything else is only, by degrees, less random. (E.g. adding constraints to random selections – the example offered was shuffling songs into a random play order on iTunes. If it was truly random from one song to the next, the claim went, you’d be able to get the same song many times in a row. Adding constraints to prevent that make it less random. But could it be really more random?)

    The downside of that is that if you apply that thinking to ‘truth’, you’d need an objective high water mark for truth; an objective reality, perhaps? There’s surely plenty of people who’d variously take objections with that and, worse, be riled by the idea that everything else is then less truthful.

    So, in writing you’re looking at taking things incrementally further from or closer to the truth but never really dealing with the absolute truth itself. Lowering the threshold for detail, perhaps: describing the neighbour’s garden and bits as “the field” is less descriptive, but it’s also much less of a specific claim, so it’s truth value is really much harder to evaluate in the first case.

    All that is to say: I think you’re surely right, the problem arises (and can be dismissed after a few thoughts) because it’s a problem in labelling, not in dealing with truths. That’s all the while ignoring the menace of our own perception. Provided that writing doesn’t lead to unwittingly undermining your own point, the specific level of truth is perhaps much less important.

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful and philosophical response! That’s interesting, whilst I was writing the post I never really thought about what I meant by ‘truth’, which is obviously an important question if you’re going to talk about something being truth or false or somewhere in between! Thanks for raising that interesting point, I think I’ll have to go away and ponder it.

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