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Things That Have Interested Me

Less Deceived

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
6 January 2007

One of the biggest problems for any writer is, considering its importance, one of the least discussed: the extent to which what we write can or should be a direct reflection of our own experience. The writer of fiction is supposed, traditionally, to make things up, but turns out to be rather uninventive: that's his third wife he's trashing in his third novel, his fourth in his fourth, and so on. The greater the novelist, the worse he seems to be at disguising his own majestic appearances in his fiction.

In Chapter One, a great "violinist" gets out of bed and brushes his teeth, thinking his great "violinist's" thoughts, before ringing his agent to bite her head off. Just as there have been novels in which the author has forgotten and inadvertently changed a character's name, presumably there are others in which the novelist has forgotten the profession of his stand-in, so that the great "violinist" of the first chapter has morphed into a great "prize-fighter" by the middle of the book, and we are never quite sure whether he is on the way to the Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the poet, writing a lyric poem, which is something we traditionally understand to reflect the poet's own experience, feelings and preoccupations. But it might not be like this at all. What the poet might be brilliant at intuiting and expressing is what everybody else feels at a given moment. Speaking for herself, the poet may detest flowers and everything to do with them, but speaking for others she infallibly hits the nail on the head.

"I read your poem," said a friend some years ago, pausing before adding solicitously: "Are you all right?" The answer is almost always in my view "Yes". However depressing the content of the poem, if you've managed to write one, and get it published, then you are going to be in a good mood (at the very least about that one important thing). So it is that a last line, expressing the deepest spirit of depression, may be written in a mood of complete professional elation.

What's going on is a simultaneous introspection (supposing the poem to be based on one's own, as opposed to someone else's, feelings) and purposeful tinkering. If the feeling described is one of depression, it cannot logically be experienced to the point of paralysis in the act of composition. There must be some kind of excitement of the faculties, some spirit egging us on, saying "That's good! ... No, that's not it ... That's got it precisely."

This must be the case even for a writer like Paul Celan, in those moments when he is putting the words down on paper. It must have been the case (to take another suicide) for Sylvia Plath when she was writing "Daddy" - indeed, you may feel that you can hear that triumph in the poem itself. It carries its own sense of an extraordinary feat pulled off - a sense that perhaps runs counter to the ostensible meaning of the poem.

Somewhere between the novelists who turn out not to be writing fiction, and the poets who enjoy this suspicious ability to express the most extreme emotions, we find those purveyors of "creative non-fiction" - memoirists, travel-writers and so forth - who swear blind that what they are telling us is true, but whom we suspect of having embellished and rearranged the facts, bringing to their books the shaping spirit of the novelist.

In a sense, as readers, we must be grateful to them, at least when they spare us the tedious aspects of their experience. Most travel involves a great deal of tedium. If this is to get between the covers of the book, it must somehow be transmuted into exciting tedium, glamorous boredom, fascinating uneventfulness. Or it must be gone, passed over and dismissed in a sentence, before it drags the book down with it.

Every writer is his own first editor, and must make it his job to spare us the unnecessary details. But there is a kind of editing (I am thinking of the great tradition of Graham Greene and VS Naipaul) in which the removal of minor characters from the story enhances its fascination, because the narrator comes across as a solitary figure, and the reader is allowed the privilege of sharing his solitude.

What the reader wants to feel is that the writer has undergone this gruelling experience for his, the reader's, benefit alone. So, if the accompanying wife or mistress has been magisterially edited out, that suits the reader very well, even though he may not be aware of the erasure that has been made. In one sense, the effect of the book may not correspond to the circumstances of its writing: the whole thing may have been rather less heroic than has been implied. But in another way the reader has been well served: the writer has thought of our interest, and our interest only.

Many writers of non-fiction feel that they are entitled to rearrange events, or more or less invent conversations, in order simply to keep the ball rolling. But this is silent editing of a different degree, and it carries with it, in my view, an eventual penalty. Trivial as each individual rearrangement or embellishment may have been, in the long run these little acts of deceit add up.

We hear one false note, and let it go. We are too charmed by the performance we are witnessing. But then another of these false notes sounds, and then another. We begin to understand that we are being (sort of) lied to. And so our whole reading of the book, our overall attitude to the author, becomes affected. If he was asking to be taken seriously, we quietly, perhaps even unconsciously, refuse to grant him his wish. We put him in some other less welcome category: that of the comic show-off, the miles gloriosus or boastful soldier of the old drama.

Exaggeration is itself an idiom, and some writers who exaggerate everything for comic effect nevertheless achieve a kind of truthfulness. We adjust our response, we allow for the exaggeration, indeed we delight in the style with which it is carried off. At the same time, what we are reading about comes across as true. There is no question of anyone being deceived. Indeed it is the very truthfulness of the performance that makes us laugh.

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