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.

19 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing across the fiction-nonfiction divide

  1. Yes indeed, as you say, this is a big topic and I predict the conversation here will be interesting to follow.
    I read non-fiction in the morning over breakfast, and fiction in bed at night.
    My instinct is to say that journalists are more likely to write less literary fiction because that’s where there training lies, (I’m thinking Fiona Capp and Chloe Hooper) but there is a name niggling in the back of my mind that contradicts that view, if only I could think who it is. At 10.25pm now and with work in the morning I’d better take myself off to read my latest novel, The Memory of Salt, which is soooo good, I can’t wait to get back to it!

    • Thanks Lisa … it’s a juicy topic that I think can take a lot of thought and discussion – I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it. If you think of that name let us know.

      I tend to read articles and the newspaper (on my ipad – love it for that) over breakfast … and books (fiction or non-fiction later).

  2. I can’t say I read much non-fiction apart from the occasional biography – often of writers or classical musicians. There is so much good fiction to be read and it is where my heart lies. That said, I realise that the remunerative aspect should be investigated more by this rampant blogger! I once set out to become a journalist, thinking it would be my way to write, and then veered straight off into fiction where I have stayed. I think as you’ve said of Grenville and Funder, that the particular project could well determine which way the feather falls.

  3. I’m also peeved that Helen Garner was made to justify her artistic choices! Life seeps into work and it’s nobody’s business how and to what degree. Not sure about Daylight’s strong definition either.

    • I thought I’d replied to this but clearly not … yes, I agree of course. As for Daylight, I liked her point about Garner cracking narrative open but I wasn’t totally convinced by the rest.

  4. I read non fiction, nearly every week. Often it’s a book on literature, such as Ackroyd’s books on interpretation of plays, poetry or novels written by such authors as Shakespeare or Shelley. Ackroyd is very easy to read. I like to read poetry and have just read The World Last Night by the Australian poet, M TC Cronin. I highly recommend this fine poet. Non fiction can be entetaining as well as interesting. I do see a cross over from fiction to non fiction. I have no problem with this as many non fiction books provides informative content and are easy to read; I find them highly satisfying. As to Helen Garner. I have always enjoyed her writings of fiction and non fiction. She has a powerul voice. As I get older I read more non fictiont han fiction. Maybe I have become more of a realist.


    • Oh nice to hear from you again Meg … I like your comment about reading more non-fiction as you get older. I can sort of feel that pull though not enough to replace fiction but the desire to read more non-fiction is growing again, partly because there is some good non-fiction reading out there isn’t there?

  5. Great post and one that you would know is right up my alley. And then there are the authors who mix fiction and non-fiction in the same book. The only real risk I see is that authors aren’t clear about what is factual and what is not. Currently I am reading Raj Quartet and teasing out what is true but not factual in it. Have you read it?

    • Thanks Marilyn … yes, I expected it would bring you out. And yes, I was thinking of the Rendle Short’s et al with their mix of fact with fiction. No, I haven’t read the Raj Quartet – it’s one of those ones I know I should. Are you enjoying it? Sounds like you might be if you are doing that sort of thinking.

      • Maybe we should think of fact and fiction as a continuim rather than separate and opposite???

        I am reading and loving Raj Q. A masterpiece, but not sure I will last for almost 2000 pages without encouragement. Review about its wonders to follow after I finish book 1,

        • Guess who I met last night? Francesca Rendle-Short! She did a reading at an event and so I caught her briefly afterwards and told her how I’d enjoyed her book and the way she’d written it. She seemed really lovely (and, I wanted her lovely comfortable looking but modern black dress!). Continuum sounds interesting … could be scary to some but it makes sense to me as a way of viewing it … or, maybe a mesh or intertwined fingers!?

  6. I love nonfiction from science to biography to history and cultural and literary studies. And essays. I love essays. I think fiction techniques are slipping into nonfiction and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it makes nonfiction more readable in many ways. For instance, instead of one big overwhelming fact dump or abstract theory, James Gleick frames a lot of his book The Information in stories about people who developed computers and information/communication technology. Then there is David Shields who wrote Reality Hunger by using snips from other books. Or Dava Sobel who wrote a biography on Copernicus and includes within the book a play she wrote about a certain time in his life. I find it exciting and interesting to watch all this nonfiction experimentation.

    • I agree as you know Stefanie about fictional techniques slipping into nonfiction. I find the experimentation exciting too – and love your examples. Shields sounds like someone I should follow up.

  7. ‘Monkey Grip’ was based on Helen Garner’s diaries, which I haven’t read, but I’d be willing to bet that her shaping imaginative intelligence began there, with the diaries, before she ‘turned’ them into ‘fiction’. Garner’s voice is unique and unmistakeable and has been from the first, in my view. I’m more interested in what makes her voice unique than in fitting it into any kind of category, and I’m wary, in particular, of the category ‘women’s novel’.

    • Thanks Dorothy. Yes, I had read that she based it on her novels – but as you say the point is her voice and what she makes of her material. Her voice is unique and so very honest. Her language and her honesty are what get me in.

      As for “women’s novel” I totally agree. I regularly talk and think of “women writers” but not “women’s novel”.

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