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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 13, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    Making things up

    Fiona McCann

    In a (relatively) recent interview with Melvyn Bragg, the host of the South Bank Show talked of the complicated process of fictionalising real life experiences. In Bragg’s case, the real life experience was the death of his first wife. The characters were easily identifiable, despite name changes, and the true-to-lifeness gave the fictionalisation a whole different hue. During the course of the interview, Bragg admitted he sometimes regretted having ever attempted to represent these real incidents in fictional form, as much for what it put others through as for how difficult he himself found it.  Yet aren’t creative writing classes forever reminding us that we should write about what we know? And what do we know better than our own experiences? So here’s the question: where’s the line between fact and fiction, and is it fair game to cross it at will?

    • Steve K says:

      Bukowski and Bellow wrote a lot of auto-biographical work posing as fiction, and Harry Chinaski and Moses Herzog are as complete characters as you will find.

      I read “Pharmakon” by Dirk Wittenborn recently. It’s about a psychopharmacologist in the 1950s who tests an experimental mood-enhancing drug on a suicidal freshman, and the student’s resulting homicidal outbreak scars the doctor’s family, of which the narrator is youngest son. I was baffled when I read afterwards this story was almost entirely true to the authors life.

    • Fiona says:

      Steve K: And there’s Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, of course. Then there are those, like James Frey, who purport to be telling the truth and it turns out otherwise. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2009/0319/1224243061393.html

    • Adam W says:

      Recently read ‘Under The Eye Of The Clock’ by Christopher Nolan, which is highly autobiographical and obviously inherently very moving. But it is also absolutely brilliantly written and I believe that this is where much of its value as fiction lies. There’s more to a good book than a good story, y’know?

      And while we’re at it, what about ‘Portrait of the Artist’? Surely the greatest work of fictionalised autobiography?

    • Fiona says:

      Adam W: I suppose there’s a distinction to be made between memoir and fiction. Joyce was a great example. I guess I’m interested in how it affects the living, the retelling of their stories in fictionalised form. . . and yes, you’re right. It’s all to do with how it’s written in the end.

    • Eimear says:

      More than a story, I think real life can give you really compelling details that might not occur to you if you were just making it up.

      As for how it affects the living – yeah, difficult. Every retelling is subjective, and so kind of unfair.

    • Fiona says:

      Eimear: Too right, truth can be stranger than fiction, or at least more believable when you read it. And yeah, I guess retellings are unfair, though as readers we need to recognise them as such. But where does the balance lie when it comes to offending sensibilities versus literary merit?


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