Friday, April 20, 2007

Fact, Fiction and the Truth

Mark Lawson, chair of the judges for the NESTA-endowed National Short Story Competition (which I note he is calling the Radio4/Prospect prize) gives his take today on the censorship row (over Hanif's Kureishi's shortlisted entry), and in the process makes some acute points about fiction. He worries
that we are imposing a kind of touchy-feely D-notice on authors who achieve one of the main justifications of writing: describing the world as it is... Fiction should not be penalised for understanding fact.
It is as if, as I said earlier this week, we expect fiction to remain in some safe fantasy world which cushions us from reality. Yet here's an apparent conundrum. Earlier this week in the same paper, The Guardian, Mark Ravenhill bemoaned a situation about which I have also often complained: that there is an apparent tendency to look for fact in our literary art, that we seem hooked on plays about real events and real-life people.

But it's not a conundrum really. As I have said before, and as Ravenhill says, there's something of the security blanket about docu-dramas and memoirs. For the audience or the reader of these forms there is I believe a psychological mechanism working whereby we can distance the experience or situation being portrayed: it all happened to someone else, a particular defined person. Although many would claim to love a memoir because it 'described their own experience', the memoir in fact operates as a kind of 'shifting machine' and on the most fundamental level we don't have to identify. Whereas, as Mark Lawson points out, a successful piece of fiction creates a generic situation from a specific phenomenon, ie it universalises and thus forces identification by the reader.

As Ravenhill says, the creative imagination can be thus frightening. It is, as I said in my last post, why a story about a situation can be seen as too dangerous to broadcast when news reports of similar real-life situations aren't. It is why a certain kind of fiction apparently doesn't sell.

It is as if, caught in a world of spin and media-generated fantasy, we become hooked in compensation on 'fact, fact, fact', yet, creatures of our time, we can't really bear the truth.