Witnesses to the spark
Another bloggy week

Nothing remotely trivial

I've just come across this, which is Margaret Atwood talking about historical fiction in general, and in particular about writing Alias Grace:

Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers.

Here, surely, is why I so often find close analogies between writing historical fiction, as I keep finding myself doing, and what the writers of sf/f say (is 'speculative fiction' the current term?) about why they do as they do. I confess that through no fault of LeGuin, Patchett, Asimov or whoever are in your pantheon of greats, I am almost completely missing the sf/f gene. (Thinking of Atwood, it was that strand of The Blind Assassin that made me give up). But why they do it makes so much sense. It's that bit harder, in writing about the quotidian world in which we operate, to move on from the individual details to the collective, more elemental, existential questions. And even if you try, it's hard to take readers with you because, because despite the rare moments of ecstatic love or agonising grief, we don't really see our own lives in elemental, existential terms: there are always shirts to wash and suppers to cook. 

This isn't, of course, to say that contemporary-set fiction can't explore collective things or make profound statements, whether it's by Roth or LeCarré or... insert your favourite as appropriate: virtually all the fiction which has truly knocked me sideways is history-set. But as photographers know, the best way to get people to really see what something looks like - to know what you're looking at, to lose experience - is to subtract the element which most people most easily latch onto.

I'm talking about black-and-white, though photographers also know that black and white, figuratively speaking, is the last thing that monochrome is. Colour photographs are always liable to stay bound to the day and place they were taken, or at least viewers are inclined to read them in that way. It's no accident that Martin Parr's colours are always super-saturated, given that his subject is exactly the day and place: social documentary, with a satirical edge lent by overtly artificial lighting. Or colour photographs are about colour, which can be wonderful, but tends to dominate the experience of it. Whereas monochrome photography subtracts that element of 'mere' fidelity, and so it's easier to bring out texture, form, light and shadow, idea, the tension between the 3-D patterns of objects and the 2-D patterns they make on the picture plane. And in bringing out these abstract elements we also bring out character, age, weight and mass, rhythms which can be thoughts or heartbeats, mystery which moves from mere puzzlehood towards profundity. It's no accident either that despite the ubiquity of colour even in newspapers, at least one of our great portraitists, Jane Bown, still works in mono.

Is it only that we're not used to the idea of classical statues and medieval cathedrals being brightly painted - which they were - that makes it so hard to imagine? Or is it also because the power they carry for us, of existing in and for all time, at the same time, is partly the result of the abstracting power of monochrome: time has worn away the paint and, ironically, rendered them timeless. But I have a peculiar passion too for medieval polychrome sculpture, precisely because I love the un-eternal, quotidian quality that colour gives the great religious subjects. Like all great art not only the form but the materials are true to its nature: the textures of wood and paint and gilding are both immediate and tactile, and entirely magnificent. It's touching, human, even endearing, but it's also grand: there's nothing remotely trivial about it. Fiction, too, doesn't always want to be either abstract and eternal, or contemporary and particular: I don't think I'm unique in demanding of myself that it should be not either-or, but both-and.

I want to write particularities so that something - often I don't know quite what - emerges, is sensed and felt, which goes beyond the particular. Some fiction writers shift the proportions from 'individual' towards 'collective' by moving their particularities further away in space. Because I've always experienced the world historically, it's time that changes the proportions for me. That history is also to do with memory and therefore time - that all fiction is historical, in one sense, if only because it must be written before it is read - just adds another strand to the rope.

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