The gaping void between fact and fiction

In the June 2022 edition of Literary Review, Emma Park reviewed Laura Beatty’s new book, Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher (Atlantic Books).

I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever get round to reading this book, although I enjoy cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety. So many books; so little time. When it comes to reading material, an element of triage is a regrettable necessary.

Park’s review concludes:

One of [Beatty’s] more Sebaldian passages, and one of the more successful, is a discussion of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph of a Paris street. Owing to the long exposure time, all but two of the figures on the street have vanished because they were moving too fast. Beatty uses this as a metaphor for the difficulty of bringing the fleeting past to life without falsifying it.

In other words, in attempting to be a ‘ghost-raiser’, the biographer risks becoming a historical novelist. But then, as this ambiguous book suggests, between myth and history, fact and fiction, there have always been shades of grey.

I really like the daguerreotype analogy. Despite photography’s undeserved reputation for veracity, we know there are important details missing from the image: the crowds and the traffic. Without intending to give a false impression, the limitations of the technology mean Daguerre has done just that, presenting a hauntingly empty street-scape reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s thinly populated landscapes and city-scapes. The limitations of the technology have presented other, more subtle, unintentional deceptions: there is no colour in the image—a limitation so familiar from old photographs that we don’t even pause to consider it; and, as with all daguerrotypes, the photograph is an inverted mirror image.

Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre
Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre (source: Wikipedia)

People can—and often do—use photographs to create deliberate deceptions. But even photographers who intend to make as accurate a reproduction as possible can mislead due to limitations in their technology, or due to choices they make when composing, capturing or processing their images. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between photographs which deliberately mislead, and those which at least attempt to give an honest impression, albeit one filtered by the photographer’s technical and compositional choices, aesthetic preferences, and personal biases.

Sebald was wonderfully talented at obfuscating the divide between fact and fiction. In this, he was aided and abetted by images interspersed throughout his text. As a reader, you know, or naively assume, many of the details he gives are, or must be, based on things that actually happened. But Sebald freely admitted deceiving for artistic effect, merging or conflating details, manipulating and repurposing images, and even fabricating documents.

The unreliability of images—and of memories, which are a form of image—was a recurring theme in Sebald’s work. In The Rings of Saturn, he writes of Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of a 17th-century postmortem, The Anatomy Lesson, in which the left hand of the corpse of an executed criminal has been depicted the wrong way round. An innocent mistake, perhaps—and one I certainly didn’t spot when I saw the painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague many years ago. But Sebald—or, rather, his unnamed narrator, who bears an uncanny resemblance to W.G. Sebald—thinks otherwise:

[W]hat we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt [the executed criminal]. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies.

Sebald’s narrator claims Rembrandt is deliberately manipulating our emotions through this misrepresentation. Elsewhere in The Rings of Saturn, he claims unequivocally that ‘the pictorial representations of great naval engagements are without exception figments of the imagination’. Later, on viewing a three-dimensional panoramic recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, he states:

This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.

Which brings us to the subject of biography, historical novels, and writing in general.

Obviously, people are perfectly entitled to write whatever they damn well please. But I disagree with the implication in the final paragraph of Park’s review—and, I presume, in Beatty’s book—that there is some sort of continuum, albeit in different ‘shades of grey’, between myth and history, and between fact and fiction.

While it’s true the amount of factual material in a work of fiction can vary, and that some factual writing contains more speculation than others, I maintain there’s still a huge gulf between fiction—stuff that’s been made up by the author to entertain us, or to make us think—and factual writing—stuff the author believes to be true, albeit often filtered by their personal viewpoints. That’s not to say that factual writing is better than fiction, or vice versa; simply that they are—and should be seen as—discrete things, not parts of some monochromatic spectrum.

Sebald’s wonderful books The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and The Emigrants all freely mix fact with fabrication. Sebald was perfectly entitled to do this—and I’m glad he did. But this amalgam of the factual and the fictitious makes these books undeniably novels. They reside firmly on the fictional side of the gaping void between fact and fiction.

Buried deep, but not deep enough, in my library of Darwinalia is one of many biographical books about my hero. I’m not going to give the title of the book as it’s not at all good, being filled with all manner of unsubstantiated details and unreferenced claims. I later learnt (I’m not at liberty to say how, so by all means treat this as an unreferenced claim of my own) that at least one of the details in this supposed biographical work had been invented by the author because they thought it made a nice story. This would be entirely acceptable in a work of fiction, but this book was marketed as factual. It is no such thing. You can’t invent stuff like that and retain the (admittedly awkward) label of nonfiction. This is a black and white thing, not a shade of grey.

This is not to say that all supposedly factual writing must be totally accurate. A chance would be a fine thing! Nor that factual writing must never be speculative. While the speculative must never masquerade as the actual, an amount of speculation is fine, provided the author makes it clear when they’re speculating—preferably with some supporting evidence. That said, if factual writing becomes too speculative, what’s the point? Write a novel instead!

I will never buy the Albert Camus soundbite that fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. Most fiction is primarily there to entertain, which is all the justification it needs. Some fiction makes us consider real and important issues in a new light, which is often admirable. Some fiction, such as Sebald’s, satiates my liking for cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety, but with some made-up stuff thrown in for good (or bad) measure. But one thing all these and the many other types of fiction have in common is that they are exactly that: fiction.

In an era of ‘post-truth’ politics in which objective facts have taken a back seat, and in which downright lies are routinely rewarded, it seems to me more important than ever to maintain a clear distinction between fact and fiction, rather than talking postmodernist shades of grey.

A long way

Earlier this month, I drove my mother-in-law from Hebden Bridge to her original home town in County Tipperary.

Eight of us went in total, in two cars, catching the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. The trip involved visits to some favourite old haunts, two family reunions, a memorial mass (I waited in the car), large amounts of alcohol, and some legendary home-made soda bread. A good time was had by one and all.

St Patrick's Well, Clonmel
St Patrick's Well, Clonmel

I spent much of the return ferry journey out on deck looking for seabirds. I was delighted to see a number of black guillemots (last seen in Shetland in 1985), and some unidentified terns. But the biggest thrill of the crossing was being accompanied all the way by shearwaters (Manx, from what I could tell). I was travelling light for the trip, so didn’t have my proper camera with me, but I managed to capture a short video on my iPhone of a pair of the shearwaters (although it needs to be viewed full-screen to see them). Such astonishing, aptly named birds, banking back and forth on rigid wings, practically skimming the surface of the sea as they flew between the waves in search of food. This was only my second ever sighting of shearwaters, but they’re already a firm favourite.

In the early hours

After a deep sleep, I awoke at 3am this morning and was suddenly wide awake. One of my sinuses was playing up. I tired to go back to sleep for an hour, knowing I would fail. Then, just after 4am, I heard the distant but unmistakeable call of a cuckoo: my first of the spring. It called for several minutes. I was delighted: I didn't hear any cuckoos last year.

After another hour tossing and turning, I decided to get up. I dressed and, as I always do, had a quick look out of the landing window. There was something white and out of place near our hawthorn hedge. It took me a few seconds to resolve in the dim, dawn light: the scut of roe deer that was browsing on the young leaves.

It was too dark for photos, but I tiptoed into the study anyway to fetch my camera. By the time I returned to the window, the deer was tucking into the Welsh poppies growing at the side of our driveway. I took a few hand-held shots on a ridiculously slow shutter-speed. The results were far from ideal, but better than I expected.

Roe deer

By the time I’d crept downstairs and eased open the back door to try to get a better look, the deer was sauntering off across our neighbour’s field.

Roe deer

It was lovely being outside at 05:15, with the day all to myself, and the local wildlife getting on with its business before anyone else came along to mess things up.

I should have bad nights’ sleep more often.

Nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem

Earlier this month, the thought-provoking digital magazine Aeon published an article by nature writer Richard Smyth, the point of which I entirely missed on first reading. This was largely due to the article’s unhelpful title and introductory standfirst, which threw me off the scent. I assume they must have been written by someone else.

Smyth’s piece is 4,600 words long, and contains a lengthy digression on the TV show Mastermind. So here’s my attempt at a three-sentence summary:

  • Factual knowledge about the natural world is an important element of nature writing.
  • But all nature writing is, to some extent, human-centric, with different authors bringing different types of knowledge.
  • The best nature writing merges factual knowledge with other types of knowledge derived from observation, experience, culture, emotional responses, etc.

As someone who writes in the segment of the Venn diagram where science, history and nature intersect, and as someone currently 84,000 words into his first draft of a book about how Charles Darwin looked at the world, and enabled us to look at nature in new and better ways, I assumed the importance of incorporating factual knowledge and informed observation into nature writing must be patently obvious. This despite the fact that, although I have the temerity to write about nature, I don’t consider myself to be a naturalist. Neither, come to mention it, do I consider myself to be a scientist or historian.

I’m pretty sure, like me, most people who write about nature would agree with Smyth on the importance of at least some factual knowledge creeping into their work. Smyth cites a few examples of writers who seem to disagree, but I’m unfamiliar with their names and writing, so I’m not sure how representative of their views are the undeniably cringeworthy quoted passages. The one book I was familiar with that Smyth cites as arguing against formalised knowledge, the late novelist John Fowles’s The Tree, certainly infuriated the hell out of me for trying to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature: an idea most kindly described as bullshit. Smyth seems to have got more out of Fowles’s book than I did. Perhaps it’s time to do as I confidently predicted and revisit it—if only, as I said at the time I reviewed it, ‘so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise’.

One of the chapters in my Darwin book concerns the classification of species—or taxonomy, as more modern scientists would have it. I make the point that taxonomies for most things are pretty much arbitrary: people think of things in different ways; there in no correct way to group and arrange them. But in the case of living (and extinct) species there really is a correct way to classify them: Darwin’s way. Species should be grouped and classified according to genealogical descent; that is, by how closely they are related to each other.

Unlike with species, there is no correct way to classify writing. A hundred different authors or readers could easily come up with a hundred or more different taxonomies of varying degrees of usefulness. To complicate matters, whichever of these hypothetical taxonomies you might choose, most writing would fall into a combination of different genres within it. W.G. Sebald famously wanted his unclassifiable masterpiece The Rings of Saturn to be catalogued under every officially recognised publishing category, instead of being limited to a maximum of three.

My own writing isn’t pure science-, history- or nature-writing, whatever any of those terms might mean. My writing is, I hope, an enjoyably idiosyncratic amalgam of all three. Other people who write about nature occupy very different niches on the taxonomic Venn diagram, where nature intersects with memoir, say, or biography, or self-help, or fiction, or feminism, or writing by writers of colour, or poetry, or cooking, or WW2 prison journals, or motorcycle maintenance, or a whole host of other potentially fascinating possibilities.

In a recent interview, the groundbreaking modern nature writer Richard Mabey said that, for his next book, he is planning to reinvent the epistolary nature-writing format of his (and Charles Darwin’s) hero Gilbert White. Utter genius! Chalk me up for a pre-order. As a long-term incorrigible letter-writer, who can bang them out at the drop of a hat, I could have kicked myself for not having come up with that brilliant cross-genre idea.

There have been all manner of articles, and responses to articles, over recent years about what constitutes proper ‘nature writing’. This seems a peculiarly British preoccupation. As Mabey said in the introduction to his 1995 anthology The Oxford Book of Nature Writing, ‘In the United States, the best nature writers are regarded simply as writers.’

The idea of popular nature writing goes back at least as far as Gilbert White—and, some might argue, Thomas Browne, or even Pliny the Elder. But in recent years it has been seized on by book marketing departments as a convenient, highly popular catch-all classification for pigeonholing and promoting anything remotely to do with the natural world. As such, the term has become effectively meaningless, with many of its most respected practitioners actively disavowing the label. In one of his last interviews, Barry Lopez claimed he abhorred the term ‘nature writing’; in a 2012 interview in the Scottish Review of Books, Kathleen Jamie said she couldn’t bring herself to get the words ‘nature writers’ out of her gob.

To me, the best nature writing—indeed, the best writing full-stop—wears its knowledge lightly. I love to read intelligent, well-informed individuals thinking out loud, sharing and testing the limits of what they know, and exploring new ideas. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that my favourite form of writing is the essay. Like Smyth (and, I suspect, like Mabey and Tim Dee and Mark Cocker and many others) I have a predilection for what, in my own personal taxonomy, I like to think of as ‘natural history essays’: exploratory nature writing informed by factual knowledge, with a plain-speaking, enquiring, humanist/materialist world-view, and with little or no time for the ‘spiritual’. But I also greatly enjoy plenty of other nature writing that doesn’t perfectly intersect with my personal biases. One of my guiltiest pleasures, for example, are the deeply spiritual, sermon-like countryside essays of Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford Series.

‘Long live difference!’ as they say in France. Diversity has to be a good thing. Writing, like nature itself, does best when it evolves thriving ecosystems. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to whatever ‘nature writing’ is supposed to be these days. It might not all be to my personal taste, but what genre of writing is? Diversity in nature writing, as in all writing, has to be a good thing. So I’m all for it. Even the stuff that infuriates the hell out of me.

But when someone named Richard Carter, who dabbles in this ill-defined ‘nature writing’ genre, writes an over-long ‘sideline’ piece in response to an article written by someone else writing in that genre named Richard Smyth, and cites a recognised master in the genre named Richard Mabey, it looks as if we might also have an embarrassment of Richards.

So perhaps I’d better stop all this navel-gazing and get back to my Darwin book.

Fools and dilettantes

I first noticed underlying themes emerging in my Darwin book 10 months ago. I saw this as a positive sign: there are supposed to be recurring themes in books like this. My plan, as with my previous book, On the Moor, was not to worry yet about how the individual chapters fitted together; I would simply write lots of chapters about relevant topics, then worry about putting them in a sensible order when I got to the second draft.

But lately I’ve been struggling. The last chapter I wrote took far longer than expected. In fairness to myself, it was a complex chapter, but it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. A large part of the problem was I’d reached the stage where I could no longer remember which topics I’d already adequately covered in previous chapters, and which ones still needed fleshing out. I could no longer see the wood for the trees.

So, I broke my golden rule, and went back to re-read my earlier chapters before continuing with the rest of my first draft. Then, having re-familiarised myself with my own work, I decided I really needed to re-arrange the existing chapters right away before proceeding with my next chapter. I needed to get a better feel for the ‘shape’ of the book. This exercise also took far longer than expected, but I finally got there at the end of last week.

Notebook entry 15.4.22
One of several unsuccessful attempts at trying to put my book into some sort of order.

I’m taking all the problems I’ve been encountering lately as a very good sign. Exactly the same thing happened at around this stage when I was writing On the Moor. It means my book is starting to come together, and I’m finally entering the endgame—of the first draft, at least.

And the other good news: on re-reading my earlier chapters, I found they were far better than I’d feared—one or two cringeworthy passages notwithstanding. According to most writing guides, the whole point of first drafts is to get any old crap down on paper as quickly as possible. Their sole purpose is to give you something to pull to bits and transform into something half decent in the second draft. But I can’t bring myself to write that way: my first drafts are more like second drafts—which no doubt is one of the reasons they seem to take so long to produce.

On the subject of writing guides, last week I was amused to read the following in How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia:

It’s impossible to write a book without a plan. Books are too big. The first step in writing a book—a step that could take months—is developing a strong table of contents. […] only fools and dilettantes try to write a book when ignorant of what will go into each chapter.

I guess that puts me in my place. What can I say? Lesson well and truly learnt (the hard way); I’ll definitely produce a full outline for my next book before committing a single word to paper, mark my words!

(Mind you, I swore pretty much the same thing last time.)

Limitations of the blog format

In my latest newsletter, I briefly described one of the ‘dubious delights’ of writing nonfiction: its undefinitiveness. You can’t hope to say everything there is to say on a topic, and what you do say often becomes outdated. This led Leon Paternoster to consider how the notion of a novel being finished might change in the online world.

It was like the early 2000s all over again: I publish something on my website; somebody else comments about it on theirs; and, even if I hadn’t already been subscribed to the other person’s RSS feed, I would know about their post because their blog sends a courtesy ping to my blog to say my post has been commented on. And here I am commenting on the comment, back on my own blog. This is how things should work. I yearn for the glory days of blogging, before Twitter and Facebook ate its lunch. Personal blogs were, and still are, the Internet at its best.

But, for some time now, I’ve been growing increasingly conscious of the limitations of the blog format in catering for the provisional nature of factual writing. Blogs deliberately, and usefully, place great emphasis on your latest posts. They adopt a ‘news’ metaphor. But this is far from ideal for publishing interrelated ideas that are all subject to constant revision. This is a publishing challenge that very much interests me, but one that’s unlikely to become a priority when there are so many books I’d rather be writing. I shall, however, continue to keep an eye on developments regarding the reinvention of an old, pre-blogging concept that makes use of a new metaphor: digital gardening.

Obsidian, my note-making app of choice, has become indispensable to me for developing fleeting thoughts and half-baked notions into detailed, interrelated ideas. It’s perfect for curating the provisional. But I won’t be signing up for the option to share my notes online because, well, frankly, they’re written for me and nobody else. That said, just to prove I have indeed put some thought into the issues I’ve been describing, here’s a screen-shot from my Obsidian vault:

Obsidian screenshot

In the absence of more fully formed thoughts, please consider this screenshot a provisional note of some stuff I might eventually get round to writing about on this website in future.

Reading more eclectically

I read 46 books last year. One of my aims this year is to broaden the scope of my reading. I still intend to stick mainly to factual stuff, but hope to branch out a bit. The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics.

That said, I’ll also need to keep reading books and articles for my Darwin book, so very much more of the same in that respect.

Broadening my reading should also give me the occasional excuse to write about new topics, both here and elsewhere. What’s the point of unearthing interesting new stuff if you don’t share it? Or, as Charles Darwin once put it:

There is no pleasure in reading a book if one cannot have a good talk over it.

—Darwin, C.R. to Charles Lyell, 9 August [1838]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 424”.

…But there I go, banging on about Darwin as usual!

2021: a year in photos

For the last eleven years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2021 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year’s slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Strum Trifle, is also by Yours Truly. I don’t have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Storm Arwen

I’m not a fan of this newfangled notion of giving winter storms names. I think of it as hurricane envy. To make matters worse, the convention of resetting to the letter A at the start of each winter, then progressing alphabetically with each new storm, means it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to experience a Storm Richard. I suppose there might one day be a Storm Dick, but I’m not holding my breath. The powers that be at the Met Office will no doubt avoid that one for entirely different reasons.

All of which means they’ve begun to scrape the barrel for early-in-the-alphabet names to assign to the latest seasonable gust. So much so that the first storm of the current season, which hit the UK last week, appears to have been named after the minor elf-maiden character (and Strider-love-interest) Arwen Undomiel from out of The Lord of the Rings. Whatever next? Storm Boromir? Storm Beren? Storm Balin? (I guess the smart money’s on Storm Bilbo.)

Snowy garden
An ent in our garden on Sunday. Can you tell which way the wind had been blowing?

Like hundreds of thousands of other people in the North of England and Scotland, thanks to Storm Arwen, we had no electricity for most of Saturday. Living high in the Pennines, we also had no water as the electric pumps that pump the water up to our place from below also had no power. And our gas-powered central heating was out of commission too, as the boiler also requires electricity. So we spent much of the day huddled in front of a roaring coal fire, in several layers of clothing, reading until the power finally came back on.

There was a second power-cut on Monday, during which we ended up reading by candle-light. It was an experience, and pleasant enough, but give me the wonders of electric light any day.

Being without running water, central heating, electricity, a telephone, and the internet for the best part of a day did make me wonder what it must have been like to live that way all the time. Practically all our ancestors did just that. They had no mod cons. They were permanently off grid. They knew nothing else, yet somehow they got by.

They must have been bored out of their minds.

A trip out

To celebrate Jen’s birthday, a Michelin-starred meal and an overnight stay at the Angel at Hetton. I couldn’t resist making the obligatory pun that the venison was ‘dead dear’. The waiter was kind enough to say he intended to steal my joke. I’m not sure if I believed him.

En route (indirectly) home, we took a spin around the Yorkshire Dales, and paid a visit to our favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh. The weather was utterly glorious. As always, we kept asking ourselves why we don’t visit the Dales more often: they’re practically on our doorstep.

Howgill Fells
Howgill Fells, Cumbria