‘Fact or Fiction’

English Department, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Thursday, 5th December 1974

Sometimes, villains are booed when they appear on the stage or the cinema screen. We know that literature comes out of the imagination and is not real, but nevertheless many find it more natural to understand any kind of fiction as a straightforward account of something that actually happened.

Defoe wrote fiction and passed it off as fact, for instance with Robison Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year, and Memoirs of a Cavalier. The novelist, in this case, is the great liar.

Fielding and Sterne, on the other hand, made great play with the fact that they were not recording ordinary fact. They therefore made references to the reader, the hero and literary convention.

Maria Edgeworth wanted to tell the truth but wasn’t confident that people would believe her. So she put an asterisk and the ‘fact’ at the bottom of the page.

The great Victorian novelists saw themselves as historians and moralists illustrating their views by drawing on the real world to create a fiction that would give greater meaning to that real world. The characters were not intended to be mere projections of the author; they were free from his or her control. The author was the creator of a world and stood a bit outside it.

The modern view is that the artist is not a great creative genius, but ‘as an artist preoccupied above all with insights into the nature of man and society, and an artist of dominating and detached intelligence. This is the intelligence which rules… the novel today, and creates in conformity with its nature its own kind of unity’ (John Bayley, The Uses of Division). The novelist has become a poet and the question of ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ has as much application to him as it does to, say, Pope, or Byron, or Auden. Conrad, Lawrence and Joyce escape being challenged on whether they got their facts right.

The poets and novelists tend to be more autobiographical than their 19th century predecessors. There is the paradox that while they escape ordinary checks on the prosaic truthfulness of what they write (e.g. of Thackeray’s handling of social history in Vanity Fair) nevertheless there is great curiosity about the relationship between their true autobiography and fiction. D.H. Lawrence is a good example: ‘he wrote about himself, people he knew and what there was of what had actually happened to him.’ There are many novelists who write in this way today. For example, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, in which many of the characters can be identified with real people, and the main narrator must be assumed to have a lot in common with Powell himself.

Most novelists, however, are not autobiographical in the narrow sense of the term – it would be much too limiting. Graham Greene is not autobiographical, though he has often been accused of it, particularly when he has written a novel in First Person Singular. His novel The Comedians is supposedly written by a man called Browne.

I want to make it clear that the narrator of this tale, though his name is Browne, is not Greene. Many readers assume – I know it from experience – that an ‘I’ is always the author. So in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil-servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette.

It is certainly tempting to use this form: it provides an easy centre for the novel, and you can put in innermost thoughts and reflections easily; it gets away from the artifice of pretending that you know what is going on in everybody’s mind; it is fun to make it clear that the ‘I’ is a character like any other; and it provides apparent authenticity. There is a disadvantage on authenticity as well, though: one is sceptical whether Browne has the literary skill to write an autobiographical narrative. That is, how can he remember it all and set it down in the form of a novel? What is Browne’s motive? What will the other characters think of him? You may say the convention is understood and accepted, but I wonder about this.

I can give an example of my own novel. It is an ‘I’ novel, and the motive is that in middle age the I is going through a crisis that causes him to take stock of his life. He tries to find out what went wrong. He is aware of imperfectly understanding the events of 30 years ago, and tries to relive them.

“What I seem to be about now is a journal written thirty years after the events it is recording. I am uncomfortable about this. In one sense the journal is bogus. Yet, so far as I can make it so, by sweating and straining to dredge back as much of the past as possible, it is all true. To do this I have had to sharpen up the detail and even invent when I’ve not been able to remember precisely what was said or how it happened or even where it happened. Only to that extent is it bogus. The guts of the thing is true.

I’ve never been analysed. I gather the treatment requires the patient to dredge up as much of the past as possible – all the past, whether real or imaginary, because both are important. I am not subject to the discipline of any therapist. No one asks me questions. I’m just sweating to relieve the past and tell the truth about it, not with the idea of anyone reading what I write – though I have to admit I hope somebody might – but to feel at the last I have done justice to the people that I knew. There is no therapist to discipline me. Words discipline me. When the typescript is finished I may put it aside for a year or two and then read it again, and find that contrary to what I intended, I have failed to set beating that old heart, or there is an emptiness where the re should be colour, or there is some lie.

Nobody else can remember. Nobody of any consequence I’ve mentioned so far is still around. Nobody will be embarrassed. There is no question of a breach of confidence. I am not exploiting anyone, not even anybody’s memory… In the way I am writing there is a lot of artifice. I learned it from novels. Without the requirements of this artifice I should be unable to relieve what is dead. The past has to be revived by the will; the will is strengthened by paragraphs, by quotations marks, by the need to invent when memory fails.”

Now to move to a different point: putting real people into novels. I do not normally this. One of the exceptions is with the Pasha and the Princess in Picnic at Sakkara. When an author uses a real person, he takes and uses a certain personality, but the moment said personality is put into movement, it becomes false to the original. None of the happenings in Picnic at Sakkara involving the Pasha or the Princess really took place. I simply said to myself, IF they found themselves in this kind of situation this is how they would behave. So in what sense are they characters in a novel? Only very superficially.

Kingsley Amis said, ‘I did it once… try to put real people on paper and produced what is by comment consent my worse novel, I Like It Here. Real people are interesting enough, but everybody is what he does… the closer the likeness of the real interesting person, the less interesting he will be in the novel.’

In A Lot to Ask, Poumphrey was based loosely on a colleague: vain, insensitive, very pushing – then I went to confer some of my pet dislikes: bullying dogmatism, and I exaggerated his vanity to the point of illusion and breakdown. This is because I like to test a character to destruction, in order to bring out all of his or her potential.

There is another point of autobiography in this novel, when Poumphrey sets out to find his mother, fails, and finds a substitute mother, who is pleased to play the role. This is, to an extent, autobiographical.

Generally, however, I do not use autobiography much at all. Some other writers use it a lot, such as Henry Williamson, whose novel was refused publication by Jonathan Cape because he had depicted his first wife, in Cape’s view, unfairly. This novel belonged to the genre of fictionalised autobiography, a genre of which I am suspicious, although it is responsible for some undoubted masterpieces (Proust, for example).

An American historian once asked me, ‘What research methods do you follow?’ I said None – she disbelieved me. ‘Shakespeare did research – you don’t believe he knew all that about human nature and drama and poetry without research.’ This view was due to the assumption that all the raw material of imaginative literature can be acquired only conceptually, like a medieval historian. It caused me to exaggerate my disdain for research. If I didn’t know something I didn’t write about it.

This isn’t quite true in all cases. The background for Something to Answer For came from (a) knowing Port Said well, (b) consulting The Times and working out the historical sequence, (c) meeting the Consul who helped me with a few details. In the largest sense, all fiction is autobiography; ‘no writer can truly invent anyone or anything, he can only edit his experience.’ But the very demands of the writer’s act – to create characters and tensions – could lead the writer into new ways of thought that would not be possible were he not a writer.

Return to Essays




P.H. Newby: later years

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

Buy the Books

Get in Touch

To contact the P.H. Newby literary estate, please use this form. We will be happy to receive any queries and remarks.