29 March 2007

Fiction versus nonfiction

What I'm reading: entries for the Ada Cambridge award, submissions for Poetrix, The secret river by Kate Grenville

This last few weeks my writing group Western Women Writers has been shortlisting entries for the Ada Cambridge award, which is part of the Williamstown Writers' Festival. This has been particularly interesting for me because the Ada Cambridge is for biographical or autobiographical writing, which is not what I usually do. I'm a fiction writer. A speculative fiction writer most of the time. My passion is my fantasy novel/trilogy. But I write short stories as well, and have been known to dabble in poetry. Very occasionally I'll write a bit of nonfiction -- usually for a particular purpose, rather than because I have any great drive pushing me that way. I suppose I've even written a bit of autobiography, but it's not really my "thing".

What I've found interesting in reading the entries is how many people think that good autobiography is just a recitation of events, a retelling of their life, if in a somewhat abridged form. Only a few craft a story out of events, dramatise a situation so that it really comes to life with a blend of narrative and dialogue. These stories leap out from the rest and really catch your eye. And they make me think about the lines between fiction and nonfiction and how these lines are drawn on unstable ground. I remember a friend who wrote an autobiographical piece, sent it off to a literary magazine with no explanation as to what it was and was amused to find it published as a short story. Some award-winning stories I've read in prestigious competitions I think aren't stories at all, but read much more like real-life vignettes.

It must be seredipity that I'm doing this shortlisting while reading Grenville's book. I love The secret river. It's the story of William Thornhill, a convict from London who is transported to Australia for stealing some lumber. Grenville's world is so compellingly real, so beautifully detailed that I've lived the convict experience in a way I never have before. Perhaps that was part of the appeal -- because last year I did a stint teaching a subject called Text and Culture: Imagining Australia in the Diploma of Liberal Arts. I have a science background, not an arts background, so for me it was a mad (but enjoyable) scramble to stay ahead of the students. Part of what we focused on was the whole invasion versus settlement thing. So Grenville's book was always going to appeal on a thematic level, but the setting just transported me back in time. I had wondered about the type of poverty that people must have experienced, but I don't think I'd ever truly imagined the full desperation of their situations. This book made me not only do this, but feel their desperation as well. However, The secret river has been dogged by controversy because of liberties Grenville took about dates and events. In her companion book about writing the novel, she makes no bones about the book being a work of fiction. We've talked about it at work: historical fiction versus historical fiction. It's all in the emphasis.

For me, the most important thing is telling a good story. Getting your readers in and holding them there. Compelling them to sit in their comfy chair or their bed or on their floor or wherever even though their bladder is bursting and they're fading away from hunger. Grenville, to me, has told a great story. It's not a fast read -- it's rich and dense and spectacular and well worth the read. To me, as a writer, it's a resounding success -- as are those stories in the competition whose writers took the time to really think about how best to show their stories rather than just telling them.

No comments: