Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing across the fiction-nonfiction divide
Last week, a conference called the NonfictioNow Confence 2012 was held in Melbourne. It went for four days! It sounds right up my alley but I didn’t get to it. Fortunately the site says that panel discussions will be online in 2013.
Anyhow, it got me thinking about writers who write both fiction and non-fiction because, while I mainly read fiction, I enjoy non-fiction immensely and would read more if I could find the time. I started to wonder whether this phenomenon of writers spanning both forms was a new one that was somehow indicative of new ways of thinking about fiction and non-fiction, about writing from the imagination versus from reality. (Is this – has it ever been – a real dichotomy?). But, I quickly realised that it has been ever thus, that while there have always been writers who specialise in one form, there have also always been those who dabble (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) across multiple forms and genres. Think Charles Dickens, for example, or George Orwell.
For some writers, I suspect, writing like that was (still is) about making a living. Novelists, for example, might write journalism and/or other non-fiction to survive. But, for others, it’s a matter of the right form for the right subject. I’ve written in this blog about Kate Grenville and her decision to write The secret river as fiction, when her plan had been to write a non-fiction work about her ancestor. And, I’ve written about Anna Funder, who had planned to write Stasiland as fiction but changed her mind and wrote it as non-fiction. Grenville and Funder had well-articulated reasons for their decisions and these reasons had something to do with being “true” to the subject matter they’d chosen.
Funder said that having interviewed people for Stasiland, she felt it would dishonour them and their lives to turn their stories to fiction. So, she wrote a non-fictional work, but one with a certain novelistic sensibility. She is a “character” in the book providing a narrative coherence to the stories being told, and the book is structured in such a way that it can almost be said to have a plot. Funder then went on to write a novel, All that I am, which, like Stasiland, has been nominated for and/or won multiple awards. Her decision regarding form clearly seems to be about aesthetics and ethics, rather than about practicalities.
As a blogger for NonfictioNow wrote, Helen Garner who has written across almost all forms*, is the Australian poster girl for talking about “the similarities, differences, cross-overs and relationships between fiction and non-fiction writing”. Her fiction – particularly her first novel Monkey Grip and her most recent The spare room – has been panned by some for being “just” about her life as if, somehow, that wasn’t valid. But, as Garner said at the time of her first novel, whether it is about her life or not, she still had to select and frame the story and think about the language she would use to convey her feelings and ideas. Writer Tegan Bennet Daylight recently visited Garner in The Australian. She wrote of Monkey grip:
For me, at least, Garner had cracked narrative open. She had written, in a way, the kind of fiction Virginia Woolf had aspired to in novels such as The Waves and, indeed, achieved in her own diaries. She had followed a consciousness that did not bend easily into the more traditional shape of a novel. She had written a women’s novel.
Ah … I don’t think I’ll go there right now – there’s too much to unpack in terms of “the narrative” and “a woman’s novel” though I’d love to ask Daylight whether she means a novel written for women or in a style that speaks to some sort of women’s view of the world.
I’ll simply say, because I haven’t time to write more, that there seems to be a flourishing of Australian writers – particularly, it seems, women – writing – and writing successfully – across the divide. They include, in addition to Garner and Funder, Chloe Hooper and Charlotte Wood. While, as I said at the beginning, this is not a new phenomenon, my sense is that many of these writers are in fact forging a new way of writing non-fiction and, conversely, a new approach to fiction.
Do you read much non-fiction? Are you seeing new ways of writing non-fiction that seems to be informed by the techniques, and aesthetic even, of fiction – and do you think this is risky business?
* Garner has written novels, short stories, film/play scripts, essays and non-fiction books.