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Fiction Versus True Life …

Fiction, as we know, is made up.

Populated by people who exist only in the minds and imaginations of their creators.

And yet as we all acknowledge – and as authors are constantly asked – characters and their situations often have some semblance of a link or an echo of someone or something known, met, seen, overheard or discovered at some point in the writer’s life or experience.

It’s inevitable in character-driven novels that are propelled by the actions and reactions of the protagonists. In novels rooted in realism.

It’s why writers are seldom without a notebook or some means of scrawling down an unexpected gem of something that might well, eventually, be filtered through the imagination to emerge as an element in a story. Like an inventive cook randomly buying a new ingredient that has the potential to contribute a twist to a new recipe.

But sometimes, life, Real Life that is, provides material that simply feels too raw, too inappropriately poignant to use in fiction.

And I’m not even talking about world news of incalculable horror, but simply the stuff of everyday experience. The things one can hear about or witness or overhear in the course of simply one day.

I had such a day yesterday and it made me think about this whole business of what we as writers use – exploit if you like – and what should be resisted.

It was the poet, T.S. Eliot, after all, who said that: humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Is fiction the same?

And as we grow older, does our response to fiction, our tolerance for certain subjects and writers, change?

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I adored the novels of Thomas Hardy. Couldn’t get enough of the dramatic downturn twists of characters’ experiences, the bleaker the better.

But now, decades on?

I can hardly bare to have Jude the Obscure on my bookshelves. I certainly can’t read it. Yet once I taught it as an A level text – and with relish. Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I find her woeful tale all too much. Even some of his short stories and novellas, masterpieces though they may be, I now find upsetting. Take On the Western Circuit, for example. It’s another example of a story where the mistakes of love and life are exposed – with absolutely no redeeming happy resolution.

Then there’s D.H.Lawrence, another writer whose novels and short stories I positively worshiped and hugely admired in the distant past. Apart from sections and aspects of Sons and Lovers that I still like very much, I now find him mostly unreadable. Irritating. Self-indulgent. I feel like snapping at Lawrence, Oh for goodness sake, get over yourself!

Conversely, some novels appeal and resonate in a way that would have eluded me when I was younger. The endings of both William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours now speak truths that would have meant far less in my remote past.

As we grow older and inevitably are exposed to hearing more about the tribulations, trials and misfortunes in everyday lives, let alone experiencing some of those bleak times ourselves, do we tolerate fewer in fiction?

Or do we simply crave happy – or at least not entirely bleak and pessimistic – endings?

I know I want some semblance of potential happiness at the end of the novels I write.

Some chance of change and transition for the protagonists – not a resolution in the manner of Reader, I married him but at least an offering of hope. Of consolation in the possibility of something wider, better.

Which no doubt says something about me and my temperament as well as about my novels.

Not that I want to write or read escapist fiction with rosy-tinted horizons and impeccable heroes and heroines stalking the pages. Absolutely not. That’s fantasy and unrelated to Real Life.

Perhaps it’s more a case of having to filter that Real Life. To distill it a little so it becomes more palatable as fiction.

And without wishing to disturb T.S.Eliot aficionados, it’s possible maybe to distill his line a little too so that it reads:

Humankind cannot bear too much reality all in the same chapter – filter it a bit, though, and all will be fine!

Happy Reading!

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