The thing that makes writing different from archaeology (setting aside, for now, the 72 other differences) is that archaeology at its most active is essentially destructive. Every effort is made not to excavate, because you can’t dig the same thing up twice. However equipped you are – with expertise, kit, people, time – you are still destroying the historical record. In digging you see how things really lay, but you can only see that once. Then it’s gone. Do you hold off in the hope that in twenty years’ time there will be new technology that will limit the amount of damage done? Or do you dive in, in the faith that what you are able to do with what you unearth will justify its unearthing?
With fiction, you have your cake and eat it. You dig up the past, or your version of it, or what parts of it your equipment allows you to, but it is still there in the ground. The facts are unaltered, the archives are still intact. If somebody wanted to come along in twenty years and dig up those facts again, they can. This is how we can have both Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons.
This metaphor has now been extended absolutely far enough, and I am sorry to have used one since Emma Donoghue – at whose feet we all sat cross-legged last night – did not need to. ‘I don’t own the story,’ she said. ‘I own the novel. The facts and materials are there for anybody to play with’. This was particularly apposite after that day’s Novel History class. Now that our reading list has extended from Beloved to Wolf Hall to Waterland to HHhH, some people expressed anxiety about what was the most appropriate way to fictionalise a historical event. Do you squeeze inside somebody’s head to approximate the emotional and mental truth, as Toni Morrison does? Or do you abandon imaginative reconstruction in favour of authorial self-consciousness, like Laurent Binet, and amass fact upon fact upon fact in the hope of achieving something that is equal to Reality if not quite identical?
What I think is that it is all OK. There is not a ‘wrong’ way of fictionalising history, although some ways make me a great deal less comfortable than others, and the reason – I think – is that it does not destroy what came before it. When I posted about historiographic metafiction, I mentioned that the argument that the past is ‘unreachable’ and perhaps therefore ‘unprovable’ poses some really serious problems. Does it facilitate Holocaust denial? Can it be used to suggest that slavery was an acceptable state? Since history is written by the victors (and ‘victor’ in this case is anybody who managed never to find themselves in shackles, or in Auschwitz), plenty of important things are forgotten: should writers, therefore, cling all the more tightly to the vulnerable facts that are left to us?
I had been worrying away at all these questions for a while, and then yesterday all the bits began to clunk into place. First I realised that writing in itself cannot be destructive. It can denounce and challenge previous knowledge, but it can’t delete it. It can only add to it. Then I thought about how story-telling has always functioned as a sort of repository for collective memory. In its earliest form, it was about chronicling, or information-sharing, or explaining: it’s always given us new things to think about, and it’s always helped us not to forget. I don’t really care if you find the survival of memory, imagination, consciousness, unsatisfying: let’s face it, however nebulous, it’s the only thing that survives. We are unable to return to the past, but we are absolutely able to think about it, and this is how it continues to meaningfully exist.
Then, last night, Emma Donoghue talked about the internet as ‘a shared brain’: more and more people have access to more and more facts, which can create more and more versions of history. In this way, she says, ‘historical fiction connects people’: the stories belong to everybody, and ‘reanimating a familiar subject’ can be a constructive and bonding thing, on top of being entertaining and intellectually rewarding. According to her, ‘a novel only exists when the reader cracks the spine’: if you’re writing for publication the story is never really all yours: it will come to belong equally as much to its readers, and it probably belonged to plenty of other people before you picked it up.
The thing that most impressed me about Donoghue’s approach was the fact that she has supplied a list of source documents for her forthcoming novel, Frog Music. Effectively she is giving back the material to the readers: she has enriched the knowledge that was there before, but she has not displaced it.
Something to think about.