That's my story and I'm sticking to it:
truth in fiction, lies in fact
© all rights reserved
A funny thing happened to me on the way to this festival. I was in a taxi, going to the airport, sitting in the back as I like to do, but I had got into conversation with the driver, so as not to appear too snobbish. She was a woman about my age, I suppose, rather stout, with brown curly hair pulled back into a pony tail. She asked me where I was going, and I said to Tasmania, for a literary festival. Oh, she said, are you a writer.
Once I would have been nervous about this question, but now I think, be brave, say yes. So I said, yes, I was a writer. Well, she said. So am I.
I'd heard of actors driving taxis to make money to keep doing their real work, but this was the first time I'd actually met a writer paying the bills thus. This woman was driving quite fast, not changing lanes much I was pleased to notice, because she held her head cocked to where I was sitting, and kept fixing her eyes on me in the rear vision mirror. I wanted to say, look, it's driving you're doing at the moment, how about concentrating on that, but she was keen to tell me about the writing.
Yes, she said. I've written about 25 things, and I've actually had 3 of them published.
Great, I said, that's really good.
Yeah, she nodded. And I'm hoping for some more one day. I love being published. It's hard, though.
Tell me about it, I nearly mumbled, but remembered the driving. I know, I said instead, in a naturally heartfelt way.
Yeah, she nodded again, really tough. A lot of editors just don't want to know.
I wondered what she wrote. Was she a poet, perhaps. You could write some good lines in a taxi, if you had taciturn customers. Or short stories. I wrote a lot of short stories in the days when I drove kids around.
What do you write, she asked.
Novels mainly, I said. And what about you?
Letters, she said. Letters to the newspaper. The Canberra Times did one, and the Chronicle took the other two. About the primary school closing. But it was the Canberra Times that was the real thrill. Pro-abortion that one. A lot to be said.
I was hoping you would laugh at that, because then I would have fulfilled the first rule of public speaking: say something funny at the beginning, then the audience will listen more comfortably when you get on to the serious stuff. And did you notice how classical my opening was: a funny thing happened to me on the way... Straight out of vaudeville. And maybe that will give you a clue to what I am going to say next. It's rather a nice story, that, the story of the woman who thinks she's a writer because she has had some letters to the editor published in the newspaper, and it's actually true, but it didn't happen to me on the way to the airport. That taxi driver was a Turkish man who told me three times not to get into any arguments with hijackers.
Taxi drivers are a classical device too. The actually rather pathetic story of the letter writer was told me some years ago by a friend who went along to address a meeting of the FAW -- the Fellowship of Australian Writers -- and found ladies knitting and talking about their writing in such terms. It's a salutary story about a different subject, the burning desire that so large a proportion of the population has to be a writer. But that's another story.
But what is relevant here is your response to this. Do you mind that I told you this tale as though it actually happened to me, and quite recently? Does it matter? Do you feel a bit cheated, perhaps, do you wish I hadn't told you that it wasn't true as I claimed? Would it be more amusing or more somehow important if I had gone on pretending that it actually happened on my way here, so that the story was serendipitous as well as rather sadly funny? Or do you think my artfulness simply makes it more interesting?
After all, we are all familiar with the polishing of anecdotes. Most of us do it. Something funny happens to us, which we turn into a story that we tell a number of times, but we pare it down, stretch it out, cut some bits, highlight others, exaggerate just a little. Many of us will have suffered the irritation of being corrected by partners: No no, we didn't have to wait for an hour and a half, it was barely 25 minutes. No no, there weren't 80 people there, more like 20. We know this perfectly well, but it's our anecdote, we are responsible for making it a narrative worth telling, one that will amuse people with its funniness or its horror, we don't want someone who was there stickling for the facts, ruining our impact. If it is your spouse doing this to you I think it is grounds for divorce.
Most of us turn our lives into stories for those around us. Partners come home from work, and offer one another a kind of Days of our Lives saga of villains and heroines, treachery and corruption, running gags and tragic fates. All in the context of office, business, any variety of workplace. Children come home from school bursting to tell the stories of their day, which they will do with great skill and eclat. Though the interesting thing is that once they have done it, they let it go. No use in daddy, who's been the first recipient, saying tell mummy what happened; out comes a flat and abbreviated garble without any of the spirit that animated the first telling. Learning to shape and polish and keep them in the repertoire comes later.
And the thing is, we are good at listening to stories, at putting them together, filling in the gaps, understanding the conventions. We know how to listen to the tales of the lives of the people we are fond of. We know how to listen to jokes. Which can have a truly amazing topicality. The space shuttle crashes, killing seven people, and within a couple of hours there are jokes going round about it. Have you noticed this is the verb for what jokes do? They go round.
We are fascinated by urban myths, and sometimes tricked by them: there are stories reported in Sydney at the moment of Asians being attacked with syringes full of blood by people who cry, Welcome to the world of AIDS. There are numerous reports of this happening, and always in specific locations, much to the distress of their Asian-looking inhabitants, but there are no official complaints, the police have had no such reports, the story is always told by someone who had it from someone who had first or second hand knowledge of it.
Such urban myths may be very cruel. Others are simply funny, as well as ubiquitous, like the grandma on the Volkswagen, or the naked woman who gets out of the caravan stopped by the side of the road to pee and is left behind by her oblivious husband. These stories come and go, travel, resurrect themselves, but they are always true, someone always swears that someone swore to them that they actually saw it happen. Was there ever an actual occurrence of any of these events, or did somebody once make them up from scratch? I'd go for the actual occurrence, in some form; people invent little, they shape and polish, adapt, elaborate.
Some people do this for a living, well, as their life's occupation; they take the stories they find around them, polish and shape them in words of their own, and offer them to the society they inhabit. If the society values these stories, these particular versions of events, it will publish them and buy them and read them, and call their makers writers. Sometimes the writers' intention is to reproduce these stories exactly as they find them, as strictly and as purely as they can be known and judged in entirely empirical terms to have happened. Of course this can never be so perfect and pure as they intend; humans are creatures of imagination, their preoccupations will always influence their perceptions with some degree of idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless we can accept that their intentions are factual, and call what they are doing history. Or possibly memoir.
Other writers take the stories around them with a regard for their truth but they allow their imaginations full play in their perception of it. They don't claim that this really happened, but had it happened this is how it would have been. We call such people novelists. They need to achieve verisimilitude, otherwise nobody will believe them. Fact can be as bizarre as it likes: incredible, we say, but it actually happened, so yes, we believe it. Fiction must be credible, or we will have no faith in it. Moreover, fiction has higher standards of intrinsic interestingness than fact.
I know that non-fiction writers claim that their prose is just as much a work of art as the novelist's, that the imagination plays just as important a role, and of course it should. The difference is that non-fiction writers should not use their imaginations in the production of their facts, whereas fiction writers must invent their events, or at least invent the way they put them together.
Of course, quite often fiction is also a matter of history, of verifiable events. We know that a lot of David Copperfield actually happened to Charles Dickens. That Jane Eyre in parts is the life of Charlotte Brontë. Most of Wuthering Heights probably didn't happen to Emily Brontë, but she felt as if it could have. Labourers chipped turnips in exactly the manner of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and priests refused holy burial to infants born out of wedlock. When people sit down to read Margaret Drabble they know that she is telling it like it is. From when she is a young girl just finishing university, turning into a wife, a mother, a woman with a career, a person divorcing, until she is middle-aged and disillusioned, examining her own past and the present of governments and foreign policy, Drabble has mined her life for our contemplation.
Mined is a good metaphorical word for it; she has chopped out chunks of the raw material, cut and polished them and finally displayed them in highly wrought settings for our delectation. Asking which bits are real is about as sensible as wanting to know which bits of a diamond necklace are real. The whole work achieves a reality which is its own; which bears a meaningful relationship to the actual world but is one which illuminates rather than is it.
And what if the necklace is paste? Why not? If it is a brilliant work of art in its own right; the main thing is that it should be honest about which it is. Lying can have dire consequences, witness Maupassant's terrible story of the not very rich young woman who borrows a friend's diamond necklace to go to a ball, loses it, and spends her life in dreadful penury to pay for it. Her friend meets her twenty years later, and is shocked at how old and worn she looks. It's because of the necklace, the woman tells her. And her friend says: My poor Mathilde... my necklace was paste. The unnecessary horror of that line has reverberated through literature for more than a century.
If your passion is autobiography, and there are people whose preferred reading it is, people who do not seem to understand that the genre is just as much a diamond necklace as is a novel, except that if the stones are small and dull and of low carat you can say, well, that's how they were, I had no choice, I had to work with what I was offered, such aficionados may say that it was society's taboos, the need for modesty and discretion, that got women writing novels, because that way they could disguise their own real-life experiences, but that now these taboos are broken down and women are being encouraged to write in their own voices, now they have found the necessary bravery, they are taking up the purer and more honest form of autobiography. Notice how loaded are the words. Jill Ker Conway takes this point of view in her book When Memory Speaks, but of course autobiography is her stock in trade.
Oscar Wilde, who had answers to just about everything, had one for this, and put it into a piece called The Critic as Artist: 'Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'
My response to the idea that autobiography is somehow a higher form that our freer society has allowed us women to aspire to takes the form of a question. Would you rather have Charlotte Brontë's autobiography than Villette? Than Jane Eyre? The two novels are richer, broader, more complex, more ambiguous, than a straightforward first person account of her life would have been. The novels create whole worlds of people and places and emotions which we their readers can inhabit, whereas an autobiography is something we look at from outside, it turns us into voyeurs. And in Charlotte Brontë's case its main interest is that it is the life of the artist that gave us these great novels; the works are her claim to fame, not the life. Plus there's the fun of a puzzle to unravel: which bits happened, which did she make-up. It's not important, but it's fun.
Of course autobiographers and biographers know this, or anyway they have recently learned it, and now they want it for themselves. So they write fictionalised autobiographies. They may call them novels, so they can do all the fun things that novels do, playing about with actual facts, inventing new ones, knowing you can get away with every kind of fiction provided you achieve verisimilitude, true-seeming. And if you do have some facts that are strange, bizarre, incredible, you can have them too because they really happened. So this gives you the nod-and-wink autobiography, when the author of it says Of course it is a novel you know, but also understands that the facts of his life will give a special poignancy to the story he is telling.
A most elegant example of this is Robert Dessaix's Night Letters (Pan Macmillan). It is a pseudo-autobiography in genre, a first person account of a part of the narrator's life, in which he allows his imagination its full rein (galloping off on the back of a leopard, indeed, wearing a large black hat with a cassowarry feather) at the same time as he plunders a magnificent hoard of treasure stories from the past, but where we know that the fantastical structure is hung on certain large and uncomfortable facts. On death, the most unaccommodating fact of all, and its imminence, and from a particularly contemporary plague. And so the bravery and insouciance and cavalier ways of the book are given bite and backbone by these iron facts. So the author has it both ways, he charms us with the intricate novel-world he creates, and moves us by the pathos of the actual story we know is its counterpoint. It's a brilliant performance, and a successful one; the book has been hugely popular.
Less successful to my mind is Drusilla Modjeska's The Orchard (Pan Macmillan), which tries to create the same fine balance between factual and imaginative truth. But its skills aren't those of the novel, and we can only believe in its events if we believe in them as facts; neither characters nor dialogue nor occurrences have that imaginative power of verisimilitude that makes us believe in them as fictions. They don't manage to have it both ways: if they are facts we want more evidence, if they are fictions we want more life.
"That's my story and I'm sticking to it: truth in fiction, lies in fact" continues ...
Marion Halligan delivered this paper as the keynote address at the 1998 September Tasmanian Readers' and Writers' Festival. The latest publication by this acclaimed Australian novelist is The Golden Dress, Viking. This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.
1. Ralph Blumenthal, republished in the Sydney Morning Herald 25 August 1998.
2. White Rajah UQP
3. Black Water p 9 Joyce Carol Oates
4. A Tangled Web of World-wide Lies. Reprinted in the Canberra Times Panorama August 1 1998
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