Life Writing

Having belly-ached yesterday about how to write about what’s ‘true’, I guess I should say something about my own definitions of life writing, or creative non-fiction, as I would prefer to call it. I don’t really object to the false representation of real people, unless a downright lie is being told. But there is a world of difference about downright lies and creative invention. If I come right down to it, what interests me is an acknowledgement process. Perhaps the most honest writer in the world is Thomas Keneally, since, in writing The Playmaker, and, more particularly, Schindler’s Ark, as novels, he did far more than simply muddy the pool of what is true and what is not. He came right out and said they were novels. It is easier to see what he has altered in The Playmaker: harder with Schindler’s Ark (by contrast is completely easy to see how the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker fictionalised The Playmaker when she wrote the play dependent on it, Our Country’s Good). But it is as if Keneally is saying ‘I have edited and re-arranged the facts, so their truth is the truth of fiction alone.’ Brave: and also a way of showing us that life writing is only interesting if it is a story, first and foremost. I would still call Schindler’s Ark a piece of creative non-fiction, however. Without further advice, I believe that what he describes, took place. I wonder where he crossed the line. Was there a moment when he said ‘No, this is a novel’?


All fiction is based on fact, or it would strike no chords, even if the fact is conjectural. (Note how I allowing science fiction such space, if that’s the word I’m looking for.) This is true even if the fact is a lie: witness the tales of King Arthur, or, God save me, novels like Walter Scott’s The Talisman (about the Crusades), my class reader when I was nine years old. Ditto the collected works of G(eorge) A(lfred) Henty, now better known for his collectable book covers than his historical fictions (at least a hundred, and I think I read them all when I was 10, 11 or 12).


The difference between fiction and life writing, between fiction and creative non-fiction, is in the declared intention of the writer. That declaration of intention is important, and, as I said yesterday, in the context of films, the publicists don’t half get in the way. If someone wishes to write or make a film about their own life, or about the life of someone else, and publishes it as such, then that is life writing. Without that admission or declaration, the work is fiction. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned poetry here. It deserves a place of its own, and the issue is not exactly complex, but is susceptible to more argument. I’ll leave poetry for another day.


Of course, there are writers who let the side down. There are farragoes like The Life And Loves of Frank Harris (by Frank Harris, of course). And there is the strange case of Bruce Chatwin (there is a good online review of his biography here: ). And there are of course the genius writers like Julian Barnes who blend fiction and non-fiction in a way that shows how they relate. The ‘fiction’ tag applied to Julian Barnes’ A History Of The World In 10½ Chapters by its publishers (what else could they do?) is fine, because, in the body of the book, Barnes makes no effort to pretend what is fiction and what is not. And speaking of Barnes, what a tragic loss Pat Kavanagh, his wife, is – I never met her, but if I had to cherish a rejection for plain speaking and honesty, it would be hers.


If you want it to be life writing, call it life writing (or autobiography, or biography, or what-you-will). Otherwise call it fiction. The definition is for the writer. If he or she wants to start an argument, that is equally fine. I would define the opening sections of my Lost Lives as non-fiction, because my aim is to recreate the person. I want the piece to be read, and I want the reader to believe me when I say I think my snapshot is as good as true. All the pieces were researched; they contain no lies; I hope they have nuances – otherwise, why would you bother to read them?


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