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Rogues and vagabonds

Over at The Guardian Linda Grant and Melissa Benn have both been... I nearly said 'ruminating', but that's too gentle and contemplative a word: both pieces have a distinctly acerbic tone, and I'm not surprised. Anyway, they're both talking about the obsession readers and journalists have with the autobiographical origins of a writer's fiction.

At my most charitable, I can understand - even regard it as flattering - that people are interested in where our fiction comes from, and of course that may include (must include, at one level) our own lives. Indeed, I would rather people turned up to listen to me and others on a festival panel than didn't, even if it does mean my being asked every darned time whether I'll ever write about The Ancestor. And I'm relatively safe, writing mainly historically, compared to Melissa Benn, setting her novel in a modern political family (no, as she says, the father in the book isn't her father Tony, etc....) I shan't be using this blog to announce that actually I'm a male veteran of Waterloo or the mother of the Princes in the Tower. To fiction writers it's what we make up that's the exciting bit: the challenge that gets us going is to write what, by definition, we don't know with seeming authenticity. By contrast our own lives are too familiar to be interesting. And yet readers and journalists insist on thinking the latter is the important thing.

No wonder that a writing acquaintance of mine has as her e-mail signature: 'I make things up'. It's significant that the rise and rise of the misery memoir is based on the reader believing that these tales of horrors redeemed actually happened; witness the outrage when every now and again a story turns out to be not 'true' by whatever tacitly operating standards readers apply. I'm always asked about research, but bugger research, as Graham Swift says (he who got into huge trouble for not being a born and bred Fenlander when, by imagining Waterland so well, he had 'made' readers believe he must be). It's as if the only explanation readers and journalists can accept for a story that grips the reader, that seems 'real' while they're reading, is that the writer experienced it themselves. But all art operates at the mimetic, not actual, level of human experience: by definition it isn't real. Even the Tate's scandalous Bricks ceased to be 'real' in the actual sense, once imported into a gallery: they're no longer doing what bricks are designed do, they're a mimesis of brickiness.

Anybody would think that most of the reading world has never got over discovering that Goldilocks didn't actually like porridge, or that the two actors so heartbreakingly in love on stage aren't in love off it, because he's an egomaniac and she's gay. Neither the evidence nor my impeccably liberal upbringing will allow me to consider the possibility that most of the reading world is very stupid, and I find it hard to believe that human nature after several millenia has suddenly abandoned the pleasures of storytelling: not many people think that Middle Earth exists, but that hasn't done Tolkein's sales any harm.

So why does it make me so cross to have it assumed that fiction writers are really writing fact lightly disguised, even as I trot out for yet another journalist how my sister gave me the air fare to San Sebastian so I could write the Spanish parts of The Mathematics of Love better? I think it's because it devalues the part of my writing self which is most precious, most intangible, and most central to what I do: my imagination. Yes, what I imagine must have some roots in reality, but that Spanish trip was in service of imagination, so I could write what I imagined better, not a substitute for it. Back home, endless tea and innumerable reference books are in service of my imagination in much the same way. The world is quite enough inclined to assume that writing a novel only takes a bit of sitting down. It really does devalue what we do to suggest that all it then takes is a little self-examination and we can start signing six-figure deals.

But there's something deeper even than this. Is there perhaps a covert puritanism operating, too, in this insistence that what so grips readers must be 'true' in the dully factual sense? One reason that actors were suspect for so many centuries is because they're not what they seem: when social order is based on people having a set place in the hierarchy, it's threatened by commoners who can appear to be gentlemen, whores who seem to be heroines. The novel, too, was highly suspect to a Protestant world for whom authentic feeling should be dedicated to one's relationship with God, and the highest virtues were hard work and honest plainness. To such a world fiction encouraged feeling - excitement, emotion, passion - by trickery, and the illusions of a made-up story were dangerously seductive. Like the misogynist who pursues women while hating them for his own desire, the world wants what we can give them - they want to laugh and cry, wonder and rage, feel pity and terror, beyond what their own lives can provide - but they fear us for being able to move them so. Nowadays, they don't bury us in unconsecrated ground, like Molière. They just tell us, loud and clear and endlessly, that we didn't make it up, not really.

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