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The triumph of memoir fiction

September 19, 2017

It was Mark Twain who first said, “Write what you know”. “What you know” could include a lot of things, but Twain’s prescription is often taken to mean that fiction should have a ring of authenticity.

 

What types of storytelling have that? Well, true stories, most obviously.

 

Maybe it is natural to prefer true stories – explaining, incidentally, why autobiographies are so perennially popular, both to read and to write - and this could in turn be what is really behind Twain’s advice. Think of your own favourite story (from TV, the cinema, radio, books) and ask yourself, would it gain some sort of extra traction if you thought it was true? If the answer is no, you’re probably thinking of the wrong story.

 

Or you may be thinking of a contemporary serious novel. Because that is where the objective imitation of reality has reached new heights.

 

The serious novel’s development from Representative to Literal, over the course of two hundred odd years, has probably been nourished by the popular – some would say vulgar - feeling that true stories really are preferable to those that are “just made up”. Hence, a lot of intelligent contemporary fiction actually reads more like memoirs than many actual memoirs. The Gathering, The Sense of an Ending, On Chesil Beach all describe sequences of events that would probably make you shrug if you discovered they actually happened. Compare that with how you’d feel if you discovered that, say, The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were true-life accounts.

 

This is odd, because the three serious novels just mentioned are short enough to qualify as novellas, and novellas often take a more or less intended turn towards the symbolic. These three avoid that fate by being rigidly minimalist as regards plot. Virtually nothing outwardly unusual or even interesting happens. And this of course allows them to transfer the interest almost entirely to small things and subjective states. 

 

In some ways, the most acclaimed serious writer of the 21st century is Karl Ove Knausgaard, who writes only memoirs, but whose books, as The Guardian recently told us, are commonly “sold in fiction sections of bookshops”.

 

Which is probably because they read like serious fiction of the On Chesil Beach type. Fiction has perfected the imitation of the memoir, and taken it to a new level; now the memoir must imitate that particular type of fiction. To read Knausgaard is like being in the presence of a fanatic subscriber to the picture theory of language. His descriptions of objects and events are relentless, and he has a special concern with truth and meaning, which he is at no pains to conceal (see, eg, p195-202 of A Death in the Family).

 

Does this mean that serious fiction is doomed to become more humdrum and restricted in scope? Maybe not. When Zadie Smith was asked how she made the World War II sequences in White Teeth so convincing, she replied, quite reasonably, that she’d read a lot of books on the subject.

 

But it may mean that the epic-symbolic novel, in the grand sense of War and Peace, David Copperfield, Moby Dick or Middlemarch is at an end.

 

So what? any readers will say. We have known that since the birth of Modernism.

 

But to know that something is, and to know why it is are different things. It is a truism that if Dickens was alive today, he wouldn’t be the Dickens we know. How and why isn’t so truistic. As a serious author, he would want to include a substantial quantity of minutiae, and he probably couldn’t find an agent or publisher without that. It would arise as a natural consequence of his being a certain sort of writer in our century, not from any sense of reluctant obligation on his part. But the epic sweep of the original Dickens (to the extent that our ‘Dickens II’ retained it) would be radically diluted by the sheer abundance of particulars. David Copperfield would probably end up looking something like The Goldfinch.

 

Which isn’t to say it would be less. But it wouldn’t be epic. Maybe all the epics have gone, which may be the same as saying that great fiction – at least as traditionally understood – has

 

 vanished. What remains is memoir fiction, more or less impressive.

 

Sounds negative? It isn’t, necessarily. Because the interesting thing is, some of it is very impressive indeed.

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