George Szirtes’s foreword to the 2020 UEA Biography & Creative Non-Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box
Non-Fiction covers a lot of ground, of course, though very little of it contains zero fiction. Fiction is inevitable every time we join one point of time to another. The question is how far we register it as fiction. We may call it deduction, likelihood, surmise and a great many other things depending on how far it fits the most likely evidenced context. To propose that you and your partner met at 8pm on the 22nd June in 2011 at Prezzo’s suggests you can call on documents and witnesses, but to detail just what was said, or further still, what was thought and felt on the occasion is likely to be hindsight joined to convenience.
Nevertheless, we do learn something from the enquiry and our way of stringing events together on the basis of experience and precedent offers us a sense – not so much of the truth or otherwise of our narrative – but the narrative’s meaning. We want to know what it is like being in this thoroughly interpreted and misinterpreted world and, in order to guess, we need frameworks we can believe in.
There are, of course, letters and diaries, photographs and film, and many other forms of record, some kept by the objects of our enquiry, some by those close enough to them or their conditions to enable us to construct the most credible framework and to find in it the credible being with the credible character and voice. It is perhaps something like drawing forth a presence that can stand and act convincingly. But it does depend on our belief. If it rings true, the bells continue ringing. Construction on the basis of enquiry is the key.
Here we find a wide range of such enquiries and constructions ranging from the experiences of an eighteenth-century woman in The Hebrides to the process whereby a modern football club moves from one home stadium to another. Here we find the diaries of a leprosy victim, there the story of an unfortunate cycle ride in Vietnam. One explores loneliness: another explores mortality. One sees the connection between a writer of crime fiction and certain séances and Mersea Island. Another considers the effect of a quite different writer on a child in a classroom. There is an English army officer in India and an Egyptian/French pop singer who toured the world and died in Paris. There is one about a murder at sea, another about a shark-cage. One is an examination of the history of a word.
What all these works have in common is fascination with both person and time. The subject of our study expands and deepens as those in a position to observe or influence it pursue their own orbits or pass across it in one or other manner. They become supporting players in the drama at the core. It is their position in relation to our centre that matters most. And the reader is a centre too, neither orbiting nor flying across in any way to influence events. The subject’s reality is related to the reader’s reality. That reality may ‘ring true’ or not. We may choose to believe it or not but we can hardly fail to be more informed about it. The rest is secret.