When do readers expect fiction to be “true”? OK that’s a contradiction in terms. Fiction is about imaginary events and people; invented or fabricated as opposed to fact. So why do we sometimes want to hold writers to account and complain their description of a certain place is inaccurate or an event does not ring true?
I came to this subject through Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, which I read on first publication in 1986/7. It is not clear which year it first came out. I enjoyed this novel and admired Chatwin. On the Black Hill ranks as an all time favourite. Set in Wales, it evokes rural farm life and the small surrounding community. Chatwin amalgamated real places and people into his storyline but I didn’t think for a moment the story was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Why then did I feel such disappointment when I read in an interview with Chatwin at the time of Songlines’ publication, that he had never visited Australia. In the novel he describes a trip through the Australian Outback in which he researches Aboriginal song and its influence on nomadic travel. His convincing descriptions led me to believe he was writing from personal experience. Yet he was actually writing from thorough research. Shouldn’t I have been happy that his research was so impressive and detailed it gave flight to the first half of the book.
Over many years it kept niggling whenever I saw the book on my shelves. How could someone write with authenticity about the Outback and Aboriginal culture, without having first-hand experience. Well, writers do that all the time. But perhaps because Chatwin was using Aboriginal culture in his novel the idea he was working purely from research didn’t sit well with me. In 1987, post publication, Chatwin seems to have made a hastily arranged visit to the area north of Adelaide, but so many years after the event, it is hard to verify the actual facts. Does it matter anyway? On reflection, I think I was taking the book too personally. Here was an outsider writing about my country. Just like friends and family who recognise elements of themselves in novels and take umbrage at perceived inaccuracies, I felt there must be something false in Chatwin’s work.
The truth is, out of necessity and creative drive, writers invent, imagine and create. Sadly, not many of us are that interesting, nor do we enjoy lots of interesting encounters or experiences. Many are saddled with dull personalities lacking in intellect etc. You get the picture. So in order to present interesting characters and plots, writers combine a snip from here and a snip from there, shaping their stories through the real and the imagined. Readers need only be concerned if something untrue is intentionally represented as true. It’s fine to fabricate, as long as it’s fiction. Though there have been plenty of non-fiction fabrications too.