Monday, March 24, 2008

The Reality of Literature

Apropos the issue of 'realism' and 'reality' in literature, there's an article in today's Guardian by Tom Sykes recalling how just as his memoir had been accepted for publication, the James Frey scandal broke, so he ended up being made by his publisher's lawyers to check details with everyone mentioned in the book. The joke here is that while no one seemed to mind being portrayed as cheats or dissolutes, they objected to what they saw as minor misrepresentations such as hair colour and verbal ticks, but this last does hinge on a crucial issue at the heart of the debates about both authenticity in memoirs and representation in fiction.

The thing is, what 'authenticity' are we talking about? And whose authenticity? OK, so Tom Sykes sees the beard of his husband's sister as ginger, and she sees it as blond. The acceptance of her objection to this is based on an assumption that there's an objective reality. What a joke! We all see things differently - some of us are even colourblind, and if I shut one eye I can see a particular red chair in my room as more orange than if I shut the other.

What no one seems to be able to grasp is that books - not just fiction, but memoirs too - are never truly about factual reality but about one person's perception, skewed by such physical limitations, by emotion, and by that utterly unreliable factor, memory - and we are fools to expect them to be anything different.

I have written before about a similar experience of my own. I once wrote an autobiographical short story, far more autobiographical than anything else I had ever written. A chance came up to contribute to a collection of memoir pieces, and since at the time it was getting very difficult to place short stories, like a fool I sent it in. Well, my publisher too wanted to take the precaution of asking contributors to check with those who featured in our pieces, and I was forced to contact my sister. And guess what, she remembered things differently from the way I did, and I was forced to change it to her version, with the net result that the so-called 'memoir' I had published is less true to my memory, and therefore less autobiographical, than the piece would have been had I published it as fiction!

Which is why it seems obvious to me that memoirs as a literary form are pretty dubious, and as for fiction: there's no such thing as 'realism', as Will Self says - or at least beyond the reality of the author's psyche.
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