Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Losing the plot on fact and fiction
By Elizabeth Farrelly
Our moral compass becomes dangerously skewed when we reject works of the imagination for those claiming to be true.
AT LAST, TRUTH is on the comeback trail. None too soon either, after post-modernism strove to cast it as just another fiction, some trashy social construct. Meanwhile, though, fiction itself is said to be dying, or at least deserting – driven off by the snarling camp-dogs of docu-drama, advertorial, bio-pics and reality TV. This might look like direct cause-and-effect: we like truth, fiction is not true, we don’t like fiction. But the truth (no pun intended) is not so simple.
Certainly the facts, which can be a good place to start a truth-hunt, show that fiction is shrinking. Internationally, the likes of Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul have proclaimed the novel’s imminent demise (coincident, perhaps, with their own?). Here, it’s worse. Two years ago, Australian sales of non-fiction were slightly more than double those of fiction. Now they are more than four times. As Australian novelist Dawn Cohen wrote recently: “A baby born during the bubonic plague … had more chance of celebrating its first birthday than a new Australian novel published today.”
Is it death, though? Or is fiction simply regrouping – partly in response to the way truth, like old men’s hair, has taken to popping up in the darndest, most inappropriate places?
“Don’t write politics any more,” a friend pleaded recently. “We all know politicians lie and cheat. We expect it, so it’s not interesting.” The same day another friend confessed bitter disappointment on learning that Memoirs of a Geisha was written not by a geisha, but by a bloke. A white bloke at that. It destroyed the book for her, she said.
There’s nothing weird in either sentiment. Put them side by side, though, and the paradox is obvious. We expect our civic leaders to lie (think of it as a board habit – as in wheat board, children overboard). But our artists, who are after all paid to lie convincingly, we shackle rigidly to “truth”.
Take Norma Khouri, claiming spurious Jordanian oppression in Forbidden Love; or white male Leon Carmen, who wrote My Own Sweet Time as Aboriginal female Wanda Koolmatrie; or the notorious Helen D. All were decorated and adored under pseudonym, excoriated when uncloaked.
It’s not just literature. Painter Elizabeth Durack was almost 80 when she invented the black alter ego of Eddie Burrup to give herself a new imaginative world. “It wasn’t a hoax,” she said, but “a device. I wanted it to liberate me, and it did.” She was reviled for itnonetheless, and forgiven only after extensive self-flagellation.
This is a distinctively postmodern kind of outrage, our demands of truth-in-art having burgeoned even as we hacked away at the very root, the very idea of truth. Even, indeed, as we deliberately blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, enjoying nonfiction’s surfing of the narrative wave (call this the Bill Bryson syndrome) while fiction, from James Ellroyto Kate Grenville, became increasingly focused on fact.
Earlier eras were more forgiving. Even modernism, premised as it was on objective “truth”, tended to treat hoaxers with benign amusement rather than rage. Sydney’s faux-poet Ern Malley, for example, was invented by Sydney soldiers James McAuley and Harold Stewart in 1943, lionised by Angry Penguins in 1944, exposed the same year and, by 1961, taught as serious literature at Columbia. The 19th-century passing-off as George Eliot of Mary Ann Evans (“This great horse-faced bluestocking,” in Henry James’s words) was, and is, seen more as heroism than mendacity. But, 11 years on, our demonising of Demidenko shows no sign of closure. That’s how tolerant post-modernism is of truth-as-construct.
Still, in civic life, our expectations of deceit are well documented. In 2002, Reith lecturer Onora O’Neill dubbed it the “culture of suspicion”. That’s familiar enough. But the dynamic is interesting. Consciously or not, we’ve transferred our expectations of truth from public life, where keeping the bastards honest is a useful role, to the one sphere where they are actively destructive: art.
Why? Possible explanations abound. Did we, in our gleeful postmodern boundary blurring, simply overlook the chasm between fiction and nonfiction, simply forget there was a difference? Is it just a marketing thing: we like our packaging info to be factual, even if the contents themselves are not?
Could it be old-fashioned salt-of-the-earthism? Robyn Archer speculated recently that “there’s a certain type of reader who really takes fiction with a grain of salt. Pragmatic, working people, who are slightly suspicious of wealth and fantasy, and really want to think: ‘This is verifiable. This really happened. It’s not bullshit.’ “
Or are we over fiction? Do we feel ourselves fully fictioned-up by movies, computer games and the collective fictions of TV news? Has there simply been too much fiction published, with too little discernment? Are readers voting with their credit cards?
This last thought more or less aligns with the view of Sydney literary agent Lyn Tranter. “People are still reading fiction,” Tranter says, “just not ‘literary fiction’. They’re walking away from fiction that is not plot-driven.” Literary fiction, she explains, dispensed with the idea of plot; quite a lot of plot-driven fiction writers (Jodi Picoult, for example, and the whole chick-lit phenomenon) still, according to Tranter, “sell by the truckload”. It’s just that, for the literati, they don’t qualify as novels.
UNSW Press publisher Phillipa McGuinness agrees. “The novel isn’t dead. That just makes good copy. What doesn’t sell any more is high-end literary fiction, fiction that’s not plot-driven. For a publisher, difficult books look more and more like a luxury, an indulgence.”
So it’s not fiction, then, that’s unpopular but plotless fiction. I like a good plot myself, especially since, if it’s instruction you want, there’s plenty of palatable stuff around. So the question becomes: who lost the plot, and was it deliberate, or just careless?
I think it was Graham Greene who spoke of “getting mud on your boots with a plot”. And for those who would disparage plot as having become for the novel what melody is for contemporary music – a kind of vulgar leg-up for the little people – I have just one word. Shakespeare. Plot isn’t just what makes fiction “sell by the truckload”. It’s also, possibly, the real divider between fiction and the rest.
US comic Diane Wilson quips that while people think “non-fiction” is what’s true, “the major difference between fiction and non-fiction is [their] … well-separated locations in most libraries”. But that’s not really it. Really, it’s plot.
Plot isn’t just reinventing the facts. It’sshaping this reinvention to reach a deeper, more symbolic level, the level that used to be called moral, before “moral” came to mean rule-bound.
Writers who switch to fiction typically do it not to flee truth, but to pursue it with more vigour. Fiction, being freed from politeness, accuracy and libel, is more truth-capable than nonfiction.
But here the plot thickens, for plot, according to Camille Paglia, is a Western male, well, plot. “Tragedy is a male paradigm of rise and fall,” she says, “a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are in shadowy analogy. Climax is another Western invention.” Traditional Eastern stories, she continues, are by contrast “picaresque, horizontal chains of incident. There is little suspense or sense of an ending.”
How does this sit with the fact that for decades the novel’s readership and, increasingly, its writers, publishers and theorists have been predominantly female? Two centuries back, fiction was forbidden, dangerous territory for women; this, some speculate, may be what generated its attraction. Now, it’s more like territory abandoned by men. Women read fiction, men read non-fiction. The novel has become women’s business.
The novelist Ian McEwan recently described his efforts to give away good novels (not exclusively his own) in a park near his London home. Only women were interested. “When women stop reading,” McEwan concluded, “the novel will be dead.”
Is the advent of the plotless novel, then, some sort of a feminist backlash? Can we blame it, perhaps, on that spinsterish, moral-police feminazi flank of the women’s movement to which arts funding-bodies, museums and the academy across the Western world have gradually succumbed, and which has gradually thrown its wet blanket of political correctness across so many previously muscular art forms? Is plotlessness some sort of high-minded fightback against populism?
Whatever the truth of it, the explanation may be less important than the consequences. What if fiction did, in fact, die? Would it matter?
For many, it would be little short of catastrophe. Fiction, says Sydney psychiatrist John McClean, relates to our dream-life: “Dreaming is going on all the time, day and night, pressing for elaboration. When a writer or filmmaker works on this emotional level it helps bring our dreaming into consciousness.”
Sydney writing tutor Roland Fishman takes a similar view. “Fiction,” he says, “takes us on a deeper emotional and spiritual journey. Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Lord of the Rings all tap into this. It’s why George Lucas hired mythologist Joseph Campbell to work with him on Star Wars. He said Star Wars was meant to show children that there are spiritual forces at work in the universe and we need to attend to them.”
A parallel might be drawn here with that other important element in our cultural dreaming: the house. Houses, too, are strongly female-identified. They’re also, curiously, often seen as representing an idealised, symbolic self.
As Alain de Botton argues in his new book, The Architecture of Happiness, people (he means Venetian noblemen, but we may presume to extrapolate) commission houses as idealised portraits of themselves. The house, like Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, is designed as a representation of its subject’s nobler, possibly wishful self. This makes the house a kind of mask, in the ancient and shamanic traditions where a mask was designed not for concealment but to imbue the wearer with the virtue depicted, should he not already possess it. The mask – like the house, like the novel – was a moral agent.
For us, now, this moral power is more likely to emanate from Hollywood than anywhere else. The American empire, possibly, rests more strongly on its endless capacity for re-mythologising itself than on any other single factor. White Australia, by contrast, has always been singularly unspectacular when it comes to telling its own stories, in creating its own cultural myth.
De Botton goes on to postulate an idea of “balance”, or a cultural homeostasis. According to this notion, societies seek aesthetic principles they lack, much as our bodies crave a deficient mineral. Cultures riven by war and insecurity, he says, typically pursue an architecture of classical serenity and order, while fat, decadent cultures move into their rule-breaking, rococo phase, craving an aesthetic of instability and upset.
So it is with fiction. A good story hits a deep pleasure-centre but, as legendary Hollywood screenwriting tutor Robert McKee quotes Aristotle: “When storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.” The safer and more mundane our lives, the more we draw risk and heroic action into our fantasy dreaming. It’s why children like scary stories, especially at their safest, most bathed-and-pyjamaed moments. This is the aesthetic of moral choice. It’s almost a taste thing, like lemon on fish.
So, are we over it? Hardly. The boundary, as well as blurring, may have shifted, with our tolerance of “difficult” fiction shrinking as the narrative content of non-fiction grew. But fiction itself remains a repository of deep cultural and spiritual truths – not an escape from reality, but an escape into it. And, as the Dominican friar Father Timothy Radcliffe says, “human beings … thrive in truth”. Truth is our home. No, we’re just waiting for nanny to hop out of the playpen so we can go right back to telling the stories that engage our deep, mythic selves and forget the rules about what our dream-lives are and are not allowed to say.
DRAWING: Illustration: Simon Letch