A RESPONSE TO JAMES MCNEISH’S ‘TWO CHEERS FOR ECCENTRICITY’.
James McNeish asserts that in the mid 1960s ‘general fiction in this country was still suspect.’ But by that time ‘general’ fiction was being widely published,one notable example being Maurice Shadbolt’s Among the Cinders (1965), which went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. It had passages including real, identifiable people but Shadbolt did not attempt to describe his book as ‘creative non-fiction’, despite its autobiographical elements. It has always been a novel, a form that allows the fictional exploration of character, motive and relationship to arrive at authentic emotional, psychological and spiritual insights that non-fiction finds difficult without evidence.
McNeish cites Jean Echenoz’s book Running as being ‘creative non-fiction’. But the book is described as a novel (un roman). Echenoz himself says that he did not want to write a biography of Czech runner Emile Zatopek but wished to treat him as a literary character, drawing on biography with ‘room for the imagination.’ That’s fine and the same applies to the works of Lloyd Jones and Sarah Quigley that McNeish refers to.
McNeish continues, ‘What these writers [such as Echenoz] demonstrate is the idea that fiction is a form of lying that helps us recognise the truth’. Earlier he states that in the ‘writer’s world, what most people think of as “truth” does not exist.’ Then, ‘in the words of Anatole France, “Histories that contain no lies are too dreary for perusal.”’ So McNeish (and France) knows what ‘untruth’ is. This is a tiresome circular argument that always arrives at the old conclusive chestnut that there is no absolute truth. Every non-fictional scientist knows that.
So what is ‘creative non-fiction’? First, it is not something that says it is something else, that is, fiction. In one form, it does its best to present a narrative based on documentary evidence but within a story structure and literary style that allows it to be readable and entertaining. The characters of real people are conveyed by allowing them to speak in their own words, from letters and diaries, for example, as well as presenting the known details of their lives and behaviour and relationships.
Another form embraces all memoir, as well as non-fictional stories where the author is central to a narrative investigation of a subject. Anna Funder in Stasiland takes us into the world of East Germans blighted by the Stasi through her personal interviews with selected subjects. On a more literary level, the creative non-fiction form is perhaps best expressed in the marvellous books of W.G. Sebald, such as The Rings of Saturn, which mix memoir, history and fiction. The character of all these books is signalled and there is no attempt to present the books as either wholly fiction or non-fiction, creative or otherwise: what is found to be ‘true’ is up to the reader.
James McNeish thinks that novels about real figures serve ‘to heighten fact but also make it more comprehensible, even - heaven forbid - more popular.’ On both counts, they may or they may not. The ‘fact’ remains that non-fiction, including both history and biography, often - even usually - outsells fiction. The biggest seller in New Zealand in recent times has been Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, a book that is neither incomprehensible nor unpopular. There is room for every kind of genre and theme in our literature but, I suggest, readers do like to know what they are reading. McNeish, not for the first time, tries to blur the boundaries for no good reason.