We’ve taken to listening to the radio when we eat dinner and usually the only channel that will tune in properly is BBC Radio 3. It tends to be classical music, but one Sunday a few weeks ago my attention was caught by the programme that was on – Way off the Beaten Track, presented by Stephen Smith. During the show Smith examined a number of writers who have play fast and loose with the truth and asks – does it really matter?
It’s something I’ve thought about in the past because it’s an issue that sometimes crops up in my own writing. For instance, I have written a lot about my garden back in Manchester. My neighbour’s garden extends along and down behind our garden, and next to it is a patch of land belonging to a church. When I write about the green space behind my garden rather than describing it as my neighbour’s garden that extends behind ours and some land that belongs to the church I simply refer to it as the field. It’s not really a field, but does a simplifications like this count as bending the truth?
I have no qualms about doing this, ultimately I am a writer and I want to create pieces of writing that are enjoyable and well-written. If the writing gets too bogged down in detail then I need to simply things. As long as I’m not completely inventing then I’m okay with that.
One of my favourite works of nonfiction is The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Baker wrote the book as though the events take place over a single year, but it is actually a conglomeration of a number of years spent stalking the peregrine. I’ve always thought that this is perfectly acceptable. Baker spent a number of years collecting the material for his book and it was easier to simply present it in the form of one year.
However, Stephen Smith mentioned a writer called Norman Lewis who wrote two pieces about Seville. They were written 3 years apart and the results were very different. It made me wonder how much a book can change over the course of being written and how much Baker’s later experiences probably informed his re-telling of those earlier years. Still, I’m not sure this means that Baker is bending the truth.
In another of Lewis’s books, Voices of the Old Sea, Lewis describes meeting a Spanish aristocrat, Don Alberto, but this distinguished Spanish señor was fictional and probably based on a number of different people that Lewis encountered on his travels. He condensed for simplicities sake, like Baker, but somehow it seems much more dishonest when it’s people condensed into a person.
The more I think about it, the more it does seem slightly odd that we would think it dishonest if a nonfiction writer makes things up or bends the truth, when no one questions the fact that fiction is often based at least in part on the author’s experiences. I know a lot of my fiction is heavily based on real events, but then, does this make it any less fiction? Is it somehow dishonest to couch real life events in fictional worlds and characters. I don’t think it is. There are certain events I choose to couch in fiction precisely because they are true, because they are so close to the bone.
Sometimes being there doesn’t mean you can necessarily report all the facts, sometimes you can become so immersed in a place that it is difficult to step far enough back to write about it. Perhaps fiction is a way of getting round that. Or perhaps it is simply a way of filling in the gaps. Perhaps, like Bruce Chatwin, some travel writer’s are simply mythomanes, who deliberately invent because they never really set out to write nonfiction in the first place.
Ultimately though I think the problem is more with the labels. Books don’t fit into neat categories. Nonfiction/fiction doesn’t necessarily mean true/not true. After all:
The truth is an illusion, you can never arrive at it.
N.B. if radio isn’t your thing, Stephen Smith also summarised the show for the BBC News Magazine: When travel writing is off the beaten track.