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18 March 2013, Margaret Keeping (currently working on Edward Thomas’s last years): ‘Faction? No, Biographical Fiction‘
The two novels that gave me the idea of writing a novel about Edward Thomas’s last years were these: David Lodge’s Author, Author and Colm Tóibin’s The Master. David Lodge, in his ‘The Year of Henry James’, wrote about the ‘co-incidence waiting to happen’ – that he and Colm Toibin were writing their novels at the same time. (The same thing has happened to some extent now with Edward Thomas of course, but not, I hope, in fiction.) Lodge puts forward his thoughts about the James coincidence in ‘The Year..’ but more interesting to me is his discussion about the current popularity of biographical novels, especially as applied to the lives of writers:
‘It could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with formal narrative in the form of ‘news’. It could be regarded as a characteristic form of post-modernism – incorporating the art of the past in its own processes through reinterpretation and stylistic pastiche. It could be seen as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the ‘anxiety of influence.’
After commenting that the same has happened in drama he goes on:
‘In short, the biographical-novel-about-a-writer has acquired a new status and a prominence as a subgenre of literary fiction.’
That was published in 2006, when I was just getting under way myself. His sections on acknowledging sources, the ‘voice’ and on seamlessly joining facts and fiction are good. Since then there have been many more – notably for me ‘Arthur and George’ by Julian Barnes. I had an opportunity to talk to him and rather wasted it by chatting to him about settings – it is Staffordshire based and one scene is set in the building which was an annexe to my (and Carol Anne Duffy’s) old school. He did tell me that the genesis of the idea – the Dreyfus case – came to him on a visit to Germany…
What does this all amount to? My feeling is that some readers, me for one, love these things and others, perhaps more scrupulous and scholarly types, loathe them. I rarely get through a great bumper biography I’ve bought or borrowed – there have been exceptions, George Eliot’s notably – but I learn plenty and sometimes retain more deeply from novels. Edward Thomas wasn’t a fiction reviewer – why is that? – but he had read everything that mattered, and of course he tried his own, the odd ‘Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans’, a ‘faction’ indeed as it is based on his own Welsh family in London.