Reality Fiction

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Abner Dean

It has long been a commonplace that fiction provides a way to break taboos and talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself. Put the other way round you could say that taboos and censorship encourage creativity, of a kind. But what happens if the main obstacles to free and direct expression fall away?

Eager to find a form of expression for ideas or feelings that would upset a status quo we are all heavily invested in, writers have often invented stories quite different from their own biographies or from the political situation in which they find themselves, but that nevertheless reconstitute the play of forces, the dilemmas and conundrums behind their own preoccupations. “Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?” Beckett has his aging narrator, Malone, ask himself of himself, as he tries and fails to tell a story that will be the merest escapism.

Consider Dickens’s late novels, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, where so many of the characters labor under the psychological strain of keeping a deep secret that can never be revealed. Is Dickens aware that he is reconstituting his own anxieties as he tries to combine the experience of being a very public figure with keeping a young mistress year after year? Probably yes. He had complained to friends that rules of propriety prevented him from talking about large areas of experience. At the end of Our Mutual Friend he puts together an extraordinary series of events to allow a lawyer to marry a boatman’s daughter and then to have this unlikely development discussed around a well-to-do dinner table where all but one person present describes the union as grotesque and disgraceful. Close friends of Dickens would have seen he was reflecting on what would happen if he tried to bring his beloved mistress Ellen out into the open.

But Dickens lived 150 years ago. Society has changed. Taboo after taboo has fallen away. People can now boast about coming from humble origins. Homosexuality is no longer something to be hidden; there may even be social and commercial advantages to a writer’s “coming out.” Love relationships and marriages are no longer conceived of as fortresses of propriety, such that every difficulty or infidelity must be strenuously denied. And in any event it’s becoming harder and harder to deny things. Everyone’s posting photographs on Facebook, everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter. Those who suffer abuse of any kind are more willing to speak up. With or without the NSA, the kind of collective reticence and sense of privacy that allowed Dickens to keep his young woman hidden from the public eye for so many years is a thing of the past.

What does all this mean for creativity? Readers have become so canny about the way fiction works, so much has been written about it, that any intense work about sexuality, say, or race relations, will be understood willy-nilly as the writer’s reconstituting his or her personal involvement with the matter. Not that people are so crass as to imagine you are writing straight autobiography. But they have studied enough literature to figure out the processes that are at work. In fact, reflecting on the disguising effects of a story, on the way a certain set of preoccupations has been shifted from reality to fiction, has become, partly thanks to literary criticism and popular psychology, one of the main pleasures of reading certain authors. What kind of person exactly is Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, and how do the differences between their latest and previous books suggest that their personal concerns have changed? In short, the protection of fiction isn’t really there anymore, even for those who seek it.

Naturally, one response to this is the confessional novel, or simply autobiography. Knausgaard’s My Struggle is the most recent example: six long volumes of intimate and sometimes scabrous personal minutiae. Arguably Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence, five brief but almost unbearably intense autobiographical volumes, and Coetzee’s three volume, third-person novelized autobiography, Scenes from Provincial Life (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime), are further, though more austerely structured examples. Coetzee insists that his books are “novels” not memoirs, and in fact they have competed for novel prizes; yet the main character is John Coetzee, his early life follows the same trajectory as the author’s and he is presented in the most unflattering light: in bed with another man’s wife, brushing off a girl who has aborted his child, and so on.

Such “confessions” would have been dangerous a hundred years ago. By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them. Certainly, rereading Coetzee’s great novel, Disgrace, after Scenes from Provincial Life, the continuity between the two projects is obvious.

But another response to the collapse of taboo, censorship, privacy, is for authors to step back from narrative altogether and reflect instead on the whole impulse to tell, or to tell things in a certain way. That is: a young writer may set out by imitating past novelists he loves, but then begin to wonder why on earth they are telling stories in this elaborate roundabout way, fighting so hard to cover things up, when now there is just no need to do so, to the point that borrowing a working method from say, Thomas Hardy, or even Muriel Spark, simply makes no sense today.

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage is a fine example of this. Torn between writing a novel of his own or a biography of D. H. Lawrence, Dyer at one point admits that he hasn’t read all of Lawrence’s fiction and probably never will; he has reached a point where Lawrence’s life and letters are more interesting to him than his fiction. This shift of focus, which seems to surprise Dyer even as he acknowledges it, is in line with his dwindling enthusiasm for writing a novel of his own, such that every time he tries to start a novel he finds himself preferring to think of D. H. Lawrence, and in particular, D. H. Lawrence in so far as he does or does not resemble Geoff Dyer.

However, since Dyer is not a professional biographer, and has no patience for compiling a traditional work of non-fiction, what exactly is he going to write? The answer is that strange intertwining of fraught memoir, biography manqué and to an extent fiction that is Out of Sheer Rage, a book that suggests that D. H. Lawrence’s direct non-fictional statements about himself were more immediately engaging than the fictional works where he found ways of putting his most intimate concerns before the public. Who needs the novels, Dyer asks, if we can get a lively expression of Lawrence’s concerns and character in the letters? And why should I create unnecessary fictions if a changed world now allows me to express my own concerns without any reticence at all?

Dyer is determinedly avant-garde, so it’s not surprising to find him at the forefront of developments in the literary world. The more traditional novelist David Lodge is a different case also altogether. In his recent Lives in Writing Lodge tells us that as he gets older he finds himself more interested in “fact-based writing” than in fiction and goes on to offer an account of the lives of eleven writers, most of them novelists. Lodge had already written novelized accounts of the lives of Henry James and H. G. Wells and mentions his embarrassment that in the same year he published his novel on James, Colm Tóibín also published a novel on James and in the year he published a novel about Wells, A. S. Byatt also published a novel, much of which was based on the life of Wells. We have a trend.

Lodge explains his new interest in fact rather than fiction in his typically low-key manner, as merely “a common tendency in readers as they age, but it also seems to be a trend in contemporary literary culture in general.” Very casually, without any further elucidation, that is, Lodge has suggested that both as individuals and as a culture we can expect to grow out of fiction. It was a phase. All the same, the facts that Lodge turns out to be interested in, when we turn to his recent novels or to Lives in Writing, are the lives of people who wrote fiction—Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Anthony Trollope—and what interests him is how these people transformed their personal concerns into novels. That is, he is interested in the phase that he himself seems to be emerging from, or in the process of change that is occurring. Again, as with Dyer, we have the sense that a situation that once made the novel extremely important, as space where difficult questions could be fielded with impunity, has now altered, such that the author brought up on this model is now bound to reflect on what to do with his ambition and creativity.

So has fiction now outlived one of its sustaining purposes? That is the question Lodge, Dyer, Coetzee, Knausgaard, and many other writers are posing (one thinks in particular of David Shields’s madly provocative Reality Hunger). It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer “gets older”—as Lodge has it, carefully avoiding the positive connotation of “matures” or the negative of “ages”—he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame. Whether this makes for better books or simply different books is a question writers and readers will decide for themselves.