Last Saturday is a long time ago for a blogger – except for me, that is, who hasn’t blogged in yonks. But it was last Saturday that I was reading an excellent piece in the Telegraph by John Lanchester called ‘When Fiction Breaks Down’ in which he argues that ‘the world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms.’ And of these interesting things, the first he discusses is ‘unlikeliness’. So far so good. Truth is stranger than fiction, or rather fiction can’t always accommodate things that can happen in our real lives. The only example I can dredge up is that while travelling in a remote part of Greece as a student, I coincidentally met up with a boy who turned out to be a school friend of my soon to be husband – both of them from a relatively obscure part of Wales. Imagine that!
But if my journey had been a fictional one, this wouldn’t have worked, because a) the conversation in which we discovered this connection was pretty dull and b) the meeting would have had to have had some wider significance in the story as a whole. For it to have been the least bit believable, I would also have had to prepare the reader for it in some way. Fiction frequently mirrors life but only in certan respects and within its own conventions.
I knew this before, but what sparked my interest was the observation that writing non-fiction absolves the writer from such ‘rules’ and we can tell it as it really is/was. Some of you may see where this is leading. In non-fiction the unlikely is allowed, and it is just this unlikeliness that makes the real life story so riveting. How likely was it that Crick and Watson would stumble on something missed by a fellow researcher and go on to reveal the amazing symmetry of the double helix? What was the likelihood in 1843 when an Edinburgh artist had only a few days in which to capture the likeness of over 100 men, that someone would turn up with a completely new invention that would do the job for him? It’s the power of this coincidence that makes the story. You couldn’t make it up. You don’t need to make it up.
Help, I’m a novelist, get me out of here.