Elisa Segrave’s foreword to UEA’s 2021 Non-fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box and available HERE.
In early 1970, a friend and I travelled round America on Greyhound Buses, collecting underground newspapers. Many US towns had at least one. It was an exciting and turbulent time. In Chicago, before visiting the newspaper office of The Chicago Seed, I’d tried unsuccessfully to get into the trial of the Chicago 7 (shown in the recent film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin) and in Los Angeles, one of the underground newspapers we visited sported the creepy headline: ‘Manson, Man of the Year’. (Charles Manson and his ‘Family’ were found guilty of nine murders, including that of pregnant Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s wife.) We arrived in Santa Barbara to find the bank had been burned down in the night.
Everywhere I went, I wrote down what happened, including many recorded conversations. However, when I submitted this to Faber and Faber (who, much later, did publish my first and second books, The Diary of a Breast and Ten Men) I was told, disappointingly: ‘Turn it into a novel.’ Perhaps the editor was thinking – in a more modest way – of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, published successively in 1930, 1932 and 1936, in which Dos Passos used newspaper clippings, biography, autobiography, and fictional realism to create a panorama of America in the first half of the twentieth century. His ambitious avant-garde hybrid books were still called ‘novels’.
Today, thank goodness, fiction is no longer considered superior to other forms of writing, and personal memoirs and other types of ‘creative non-fiction’ are everywhere. Still, nomenclature by authors and their publishers often seems fluid and arbitrary. Some writers insist on calling their very autobiographical works novels; I am not always sure why. One example is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume My Struggle whose obsessive ‘truthfulness’ he later said he regretted, as it may have caused his second wife’s breakdown. It had also enraged certain family members – his uncle was furious at the graphic description of the author’s father’s death, the deceased also being the uncle’s brother. How ‘truthful’ should writers be? Calling something a novel is not always a disguise.
Rachel Cusk’s latest books also have strong autobiographical themes – perhaps they can be described as ‘scrupulous self-examination’ – and are dubbed ‘autofiction’. She too has sometimes received disapproval for disregarding others’ feelings though both she and Knausgaard don’t shrink from portraying themselves too in an unflattering light.
Certain authors repeat the same material, see-sawing between fiction and non-fiction, perhaps trying to make sense of their own lives. Sybille Bedford’s 1956 autobiographical novel A Legacy, about her childhood and young adulthood, contained material that was covered again twenty years later in her memoir Quicksands, and in 1989, her book Jigsaw, described as ‘an autobiographical novel’, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Rather confusing.
Andrew Barrow’s The Tap Dancer (1992) about his father – in which very little was made up – won both the McKitterick and Hawthornden Prizes and is called a novel, whereas J R Ackerley’s 1966 book about his father resulted in the annual Ackerley Prize for memoir. What to make of all this?
Surely it must be in the selection and shaping of the raw material that makes a piece of writing successful, whether we call it fiction, non-fiction or creative non-fiction? Just as important as choosing what to include is choosing what to leave out and this can be difficult. In 1979, I was introduced to Diana Holman-Hunt, grand-daughter of the pre-Raphaelite painter and author of the funny and poignant memoir My Grandmothers and I, one of my favourite books. I had still not published a book myself and found structure problematic. Diana tried to help, saying that you had to find the right beads to string on the thread. I finally managed this with my first book, but only because I had breast cancer, and had already written my diary of those eight months of my life, from cancer’s discovery to the end of the treatment. I am still hopeless at structure.
The pieces in this anthology are never boring, they are all tightly wrought, and none is morbidly introspective. Each one successfully opens an unexpected, different world to the reader and I found this very refreshing. It appears that several pieces, though satisfying in themselves, could also go on to form part of a whole book. I often found myself wanting to know more about a certain character or situation.
Perhaps the main advice we writers can pass on to each other is to never give up. We must keep writing, whether in poetry, fiction, memoir, biography or ‘creative non-fiction’. And we must go on reading as much as we can, including each other’s work. I have enjoyed reading all the work here.