I have a new job as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Non-Fiction at the University of East Anglia (UEA). My class, who are gifted, good humoured and tolerant of me, would like to know what creative non-fiction is. Creative non-fiction can accommodate any number of sub-genres (the personal essay, travel writing, reportage, memoir, confession, anecdote, wiki page entries, notebooks, aphorisms, poetry and – why not? – film scripts) but it has to show literary potential. Otherwise if would be non-creative non-fiction.
A characteristic of creative non-fiction is that it tends to blur the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. Of course any piece of writing is necessarily a fashioning and shaping of events. (The etymology of fiction is from the Latin fingere, to “mould”, “shape” or “contrive”.) But we do not expect non-fiction to distort in the same way. The truth is, it does distort. Edmund Gosses’s Edwardian memoir Father and Son, written when Gosse was nearly 60, recounts conversations that apparently took place when the author was a prepubescent child. Had the conversations been made up? Certainly they had.
The shape-shifting, ambiguous nature of truth is explored in the 1940 film noir The Letter (1940), based on Somerset Maugham’s story of blackmail in the Far East. Bette Davis is suspected of lying about an incriminating correspondence. What, she asks under cross-examination, is a fact, and what a lie?
John Donne, Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon and B.S.Johnson were all, their different ways, writers of creative non-fiction; they wrote “truth-telling” essays, sermons and verse of literary distinction and craft (mere journalism cannot be considered literature).
The interesting book to read on this vexing subject is Reality Hunger, by David Shields, published in 2010.
Below is a version of an ‘essay’ (from the Middle French essai, “to try”, “attempt”, “experiment”) I wrote recently for the Independent newspaper. It focuses on a memoir called The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream (2015), by Katharine Norbury, herself a graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at UEA and, like all good memoirists, a writer aware of “genre mingling” and hybridity.
The rise of the literary memoir
Ours is the era of Everybody’s Autobiography. Bookshops are filled with memoirs – Never Let Me Go, The Last Time We Cried – that dilate on the horrors of anorexia, autism, cancer, childhood abuse or bereavement. The books might amount to solipsistic rambling, were the writing not up to standard.
When is a life worth telling? B.S.Johnson, the London-born novelist and tireless chronicler of himself, put the most humdrum of autobiographical details into his “truth-telling” novels. His fictionalized memoir Trawl (1966) fetched up in the Angling section of Foyles bookshop. It was an early example of an unsaleable literary hybrid.
Most good memoirists make life more interesting than it is, blending truth with untruth to create a semi-fictional construct. Jonathan Meades, the architectural and cultural commentator, conjured a vanished Britain of 1950s Cracker Barrel cheese adverts and Aertex shirts in his recent childhood memoir, An Encyclopaedia of Myself. How much of it was elaborated? The memoir showed a novelist’s hand in the use of big, polysyllabic words (“gingivitic”, “leucous”) and the heightened caricature.
Katharine Norbury’s much-hyped first book, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, is a travelogue-cum-memoir, that shimmers with allusions to Celtic and mystical Christianity. Norbury had been adopted as a baby in Liverpool and knew almost nothing about the circumstances of her birth. Her book explores a particularly disturbed period in her life a few years ago when, in her mid-40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer following a miscarriage; after a bilateral mastectomy she tracked down her birth mother only to find that she wanted nothing to do with her. Norbury writes very well of life’s uncertainty and transience. “My name had been Marie, but had then been changed to Katharine. I was born in the Convent and had then gone out in to the world.” To what extent Norbury’s memoir has been buffed up and polished in the re-telling is unclear. Memoir is built on human memory – but nothing is so unreliable as human memory.
With its pages of nostalgic childhood recollection and enchanted description of landscape, The Fish Ladder inevitably invites comparison with Helen Macdonald’s bestseller H is for Hawk. Like Macdonald’s ornithological memoir, Norbury’s is on one level a work of filial devotion, that reflects a solitary child’s attachment to her foster father (a “lovely, kind, irreplaceable man”) and how much she misses him.
The literary memoir has been around for some time. Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, published in 1993, recast Edmund Gosse’s Edwardian masterwork Father and Son as a very modern work of self-disclosure and confession. Today, the trend is for memoir to incorporate elements of anthropology, art criticism, travel, nature writing and other disciplines. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), notably, went beyond conventional memoir to assimilate elements of allegorical pilgrimage and the continental tradition of the moral essay.
De Waal was not the first in recent years to turn the raw material of his experience into an unclassifiable work of literature. In 1984, Primo Levi’s literary-scientific autobiography, The Periodic Table, had reached the UK bestseller list alongside Dick Francis. Incredibly, the memoir had been turned down by no fewer than twenty-seven publishers in Britain before it was finally taken on. Such hybrid merchandise would never sell, editors feared. Peculiar in construction, audacious in conception, the book was not autobiography and it was not a chemistry treatise either. What was it? Only now, three decades on, can we see that Levi was ahead of his time.
Women especially seem to flourish in the field of the new hybrid memoir. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, chronicling the author’s 1,100-mile solo hike from California to Washington, was turned into a film in 2014 starring Rees Witherspoon. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts and Gabriel Weston’s Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story were each, in their different ways, unsparing and courageous reckonings with bereavement and human sickness. Weston’s hospital memoir itself continued a tradition of scientific writing on mortality from Sir Thomas Browne to Primo Levi.
Norbury may not be a writer by vocation, but, like Helen Macdonald and others before her, she has much to say about human suffering and the puzzle of human identity. In the absence of traceable blood parents, she seeks an anchor point in the British landscape, undertaking a series of long walks across Scotland and north-east Wales in the company of her 9-year-old daughter Evie. The walks are intended to trace a number of rivers from mouth to source. Very occasionally the therapist’s couch shows in the prose (“I had found a missing piece in the broken vase of my history”); otherwise Norbury attains a wonder-struck prose poetry as she struggles to make peace with her birth mother’s refusal to have anything to do with her – still less with her book.
Of course there is always a special risk when putting a parent into “self-biography” (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called memoir). Alexandra Fuller, one of Britain’s great post-colonial memoirists, found that not all those who recognized themselves in her terrific account of 1960s and 1970s white-ruled South Africa, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, had appreciated their transformation. The author’s own mother, Nicola Fuller, was disquieted to find herself as a character in that “awful book” (as she refers to it today). Was she really that flaky and drunk? Or was that others perceived her?
In the celebrated dance scene from Godard’s 1964 movie Bande a part the jukebox music suddenly cuts out while Godard speculates, in French voice-over, on the character’s likely emotions, thoughts and sexual fantasies. Fiction or non-fiction?
What’s is a fact here? What’s a lie, for that matter, Godard seems to be asking.
For some time now I have been writing a memoir for my London publishers (Faber & Faber) of my Baltic émigrée mother, who came to Britain in 1947 through a series of Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Unsurprisingly, she was not always happy to have her past examined by a writer (“When a writer is born into a family”, she likes to quote the Baltic-born poet Czeslaw Milosz, “the family is finished”.) It was hard enough for her to believe that the memoir I had in mind was to be worthwhile and not a hurtful exercise in family exposure. But, selfishly, I persisted: the discovery of my mother’s past was in some measure also the discovery of my past. I can only hope that my book will be an absorbing amalgam of personal anecdote, travelogue, fiction and family history, in which details from one woman’s troubled life provide a documentary authenticity and truthfulness (or semi-truthfulness) in the telling.
Ian Thomson 28 February 2015