ALL EXPENSES PAID (Fact meets Fiction) eBook: Helen Ducal, Simon Birch: leondumoulin.nl: Kindle Store.
Table of contents
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- In ‘Perfect Little World,’ a scientist hopes to create the ideal family - The Washington Post
- ‘Based on a true story’: the fine line between fact and fiction
For some readers this was a thoroughly disillusioning experience; for others it seemed that his exuberance and imaginative abundance were not always compatible with the obligations and diligence of the reporter. He remains a great writer — just not the kind of great writer he was supposed to be.
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The essential thing — and this was something I discovered when writing But Beautiful as a series of improvisations — is to arrive at a form singularly appropriate to a particular subject, and to that subject alone. That book was dedicated to John Berger. The documentary studies — of a country doctor in A Fortunate Man , of migrant labour in A Seventh Man — he made with photographer Jean Mohr are unsurpassed in their marriage of image and text.
The shift from the overt modernist complexities of the Booker prize-winning G to the stories of French peasant life was perceived, in some quarters, as a retreat to more traditional forms. Nothing — to use a phrase that may not be appropriate in this context — could be further from the truth. Berger was 89 on 5 November, bonfire night. He has been setting borders ablaze for almost 60 years, urging us towards the frontier of the possible.
Geoff Dyer received the Windham-Campbell prize for nonfiction.
His new book, White Sands , will be published by Canongate in June. Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with the reader. If the book is a work of fiction the contract is pretty vague, essentially saying: In the contract for my novels I promise to try to show my readers a way of seeing the world in a way I hope they have not seen before. A contract for a work of nonfiction is a more precise affair. The writer says, I am telling you, and to the best of my ability, what I believe to be true.
This is a contract that should not be broken lightly and why I have disagreed with writers of memoir in particular who happily alter facts to suit their narrative purposes. Break the contract and readers no longer know who to trust. I write both fiction and nonfiction — to me they serve different purposes. On my noticeboard I have pinned the lines: In the 12 years since its publication I have continued to explore the themes of civil war, though almost exclusively in fiction.
- Kerry Hudson: ‘Yes, this is “made up” but this is also the most truthful thing I have to give you’.
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Fiction allows me to reach for a deeper, less literal kind of truth. However, when a writer comes to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, they employ many of the same techniques, of narrative, plot, pace, mood and dialogue. This is one reason I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction prizes is, well, a fiction. These writers have broken the boundaries of nonfiction to reach for the kind of truth that fiction writers covet. It made no sense. We are entering a post-literate world, where the moving image is king.
And more novels than ever before are set in the past. This is largely because the essence of human drama is moral dilemma, an element that our nonjudgmental society today rather lacks. A blend of historical fact and fiction has been used in various forms since narrative began with sagas and epic poems. There is a more market-driven attempt to satisfy the modern desire in a fast-moving world to learn and be entertained at the same time. In any case, we seem to be experiencing a need for authenticity, even in works of fiction. I have always loved novels set in the past. But however impressive her research and writing, I am left feeling deeply uneasy.
Which parts were pure invention, which speculation and which were based on reliable sources? She lives inside the consciousness of her characters for whom the future is blank. The problem arises precisely when the novelist imposes their consciousness on a real historical figure. Restorers of paintings and pottery follow a code of conduct in their work to distinguish the genuine and original material from what they are adding later. Should writers do the same? Should not the reader be told what is fact and what is invented?
The novelist Linda Grant argued that this also gives the writer much greater freedom of invention. Keeping real names shackles the imaginative writer perhaps more than they realise. For a time I even stuck to a pedantic sequence of fiction followed by fact as if it were an unwritten commandment passed down to autodidacts like me. There was also a certain amount of piety involved.
In ‘Perfect Little World,’ a scientist hopes to create the ideal family - The Washington Post
Reading should be about learning. Pleasure should be a secondary consideration. I still recall the very first nonfiction book I ever read: The Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead. Even the most devoted film fan must appreciate the occasional documentary. As for my own favourite nonfiction book, it would have to be An Immaculate Mistake , an exquisite memoir of childhood by Paul Bailey. I often tell book festival audiences that I want to write fiction myself, to which the cynics in the audience suggest I write the next manifesto.
I like to think myself as anti-genre-labelling. There is nothing more likely to stunt your creativity than to think of walls between genres. I understand that booksellers, and even readers, need to know if a book is a crime novel or literary or commercial or romantic but for a writer, thinking in those terms is limiting.
Also, at the risk of sounding like a pretentious sixth-former, the divide between fiction and nonfiction is inherently false according to the multiverse theory, in that all fiction is true in one universe or other, so when you write a novel you are writing reality that belongs to somewhere else. But there is another reason the divide is false, or at least why it creates false ideas.
And that is because things categorised as nonfiction can be inauthentic while fiction can contain more truth. The aim of any writer, even a fantasy writer, is the pursuit of truth. I have written nonfiction and fiction. I wrote a science fiction novel that was very autobiographical about my experience of depression, and then I wrote a nonfiction book about depression. We need both genres, sometimes at the same time, because the moment we trust too much in one fixed idea of reality is the moment we lose it.
But as a reader, I must admit I read more nonfiction than fiction at the moment, because there is so much good stuff around and because I am writing fiction and my mind likes the counterbalance. It might seem logical that nonfiction, with its rigorous foundation in fact, would be a more persuasive instrument of social change than fiction; but I believe this is not the case.
We are feeling creatures, and often it is only our refusal or inability to empathise that allows us to pursue our cruelties. Fiction gets under the guard. It creates empathy, changes fixed opinions and morality, and contributes to reform of law and social practice.
The sweatshop is still with us and so are slavery, the denial of rights to women and the sufferings of those swept aside. You will not emerge from these books unchanged. It is, I think, generally true that most writers write either fiction or nonfiction, to the exclusion of the other, most of the time; though it is easy to think of exceptions to this rule.
Nicholas Shakespeare, for example, is a much-admired novelist, but he has also written an excellent biography of Bruce Chatwin. As a writer, I specialise in biography, which seems to suit my interests and aptitudes. Being nosy, I enjoy investigating the lives of others, like a detective, or perhaps a spy. That these others are real people is an essential part of the process. I can imagine a biography of a fictional character, but it would not be the kind of biography that I should want to write.
‘Based on a true story’: the fine line between fact and fiction
Though I write nonfiction, this does not mean that I do not read fiction: I notice that dedicated readers of fiction tend towards new books. I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that the novel I am reading at the moment is by Marcel Proust. In any case I feel that those readers who restrict themselves to fiction may be denying themselves pleasure as well as instruction. I would argue that biography can be as enriching and as entertaining as fiction. At its best, biography teaches us about life itself, just as fiction does.
The great man had written almost every type of book, including works of both fiction and biography, so he knew a thing or two. The goal of every author of every piece of writing is to get the reader willingly to suspend disbelief. Every piece of writing puts forth some logical argument and some theory of cause and effect for the simple reason that words, especially prose words, are sequential. Nonfiction, history, is about what is known to be, or generally accepted to be, accurate.
Facts are like archeological finds — they must strike us as tangible and real, therefore likely, plausible, attested, but also new and revelatory. The promise of nonfiction is that it is accurate, and therefore, like an archeological site, incomplete — here are the stone walls, here is part of a mosaic, here are two goblets. My theory concerns what these objects might mean, how they might be connected to an earthquake for which there is evidence, but I cannot go too far toward completeness or the reader, who might otherwise enjoy my narrative, will cease to be willing to suspend disbelief in its accuracy.
He invites her and her newborn to participate in a psychological experiment called the Infinite Family Project. The children and their parents are coddled and given every all-expenses-paid possibility for personal enrichment, from gourmet meals to therapy and college tuition — and, of course, scads of free babysitting. Wilson has had fun with screwy families before.
Grind has a similar lineage: His parents, a husband-and-wife psychology team, raised their son by a tough-love-style child-rearing technique they called the Constant Friction Method, exposing him to danger and deprivation of ever-more-creative varieties. The dowager bankrolling the Infinite Family Project grew up in an orphanage. All of these characters experience a profound longing for a community more nurturing than the families that mistreated or abandoned them.
Grind remains earnest while performing the comical Stanford marshmallow experiment, which measures how long children are willing to delay gratification when yummy treats are placed before them. Wilson has done his child development homework — that experiment is real. Wilson also enjoys poking fun at the size of his cast of characters.