Monday, January 30, 2012

Imagining reality

Robert McCrum considers an issue that this blog has touched on more than once: the troubling need in our contemporary cultural climate for fiction to pass itself off as 'authentic' - increasingly in terms of factual authenticity. He quotes from the author's note in Andrew Miller's Costa-winning Pure: 'This is a work of imagination, a work that combines the actual with the invented' and notes the 'queasiness' of this apparent sense of the need for a defence of the novelist's right to invent, imagine and play fast and loose with historical and social fact. As McCrum says, 'When the novel was young and confident, inventiveness was its raison d'etre. Not now.' David Edgar's recent piece in The Guardian made reference to the extent to which this trend has affected radio drama even more strongly, with its proliferation of factually-based plays about well-known events or disasters or incidents in the lives of famous people. And of course we needn't mention the dreary ubiquity of 'reality' TV shows.

It's interesting. On the one hand we have this over-dependence on the comfort of 'fact', and on the other the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and virtual gaming. What we can't seem to deal with is the inventive re-imagining of our recognisably real world that makes us look at it differently and uncovers truths we may not have previously noticed. This, ironically, is not an embracing of reality but a withdrawal from it.


Tim Love said...

Have you read Reality Hunger (David Shields)? "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" (p.3).

Elizabeth Baines said...

No, I haven't, Tim - and I clearly should! Thanks for the heads up.

Dan Holloway said...

Mmm, I read that post with interest too. The increasing conflation of truth with fact is something that bothers me immensely. One of the many robust exchanges during last year’s Not the Booker Prize I think illustrates what the issue is. I’ll start by stating (as I’ve written about at and elsewhere) that I have my feet placed firmly in the camp of confessional art. As such I’m used to banging my head against a brick wall when people assume I mean autobiography. No matter the metaphor I choose (I like best thinking of the writer’s personal truth as the body and the detail of the story as its clothing) the distinction seems to elude those who want it to elude them.
Two positions emerged during the various debates (and also, interestingly, during conversation about articulating the riots of last summer) that I think form a pincer on the view of fiction as an “imaginative externalisation.” The first is the widespread death of the author meme, as rearticulated most recently (and, I will admit, interestingly) by Tom McCarthy, and others like Lee Rourke. We as authors are constructed from externals, our experience is merely a string of echoes of externals, and our works are, a fortiori, recombinations of elements of the external domain. The notion of an inner truth is, if the author is dead, utterly ersatz. The authorial task itself consists entirely of cutting and pasting, of listening to signals coming to us from “elsewhere” and rearranging them. I have many problems with these ideas, but they are enjoying a mini renaissance thanks to McCarthy, and by eliminating the imaginative from the author’s toolkit, I can see the part they play in hollowing out the substance of the novel (a rather modernist, rather than postmodernist as often claimed, trait) thus leaving it a vacuum, hated by nature and thus filled by irrelevant tittle tattling about factuality.
The second is the more widespread and not at all interesting fist-waving against the subjectivity. This position sees the death of culture everywhere it looks and blames it on the fact that “everyone has a voice these days” or, worse still, “everyone’s voice is equal.” I have more (it’s immediately divisive at a very basic level) and fewer (it’s obviously protectionist rubbish) problems with this, but the fact is it’s there and it’s widespread, and the thing it has in its sights is the idea of the text as a subjective entity whose appreciation is unanchored in objective criteria of any kind. Of course, such objective criteria are rarely offered up (I’ve seen “greatness”, “timelessness”, “relation to the canon” and other utter nonsenses suggested), but the fact that there is a push for them is a move towards the valuing of facts. More to the point, both of these critical tendencies empty the substantial space in teh novel that was once filled by the creative subject.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Wow, Dan, really very interesting. I'll read again later when I've time to digest this properly.