Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Fiction or Faction - which do we value most? - Meg Harper
I’m writing a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for KS2 in story form – and I’m loving it. I’m panicking about the deadline looming but apart from that, I’m having a ball! I applied for the job, so to speak, because I’m vaguely interested in the Tudors. From time to time I don my Tudor togs and go off to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk to enjoy that merry jape called re-enactment. I generally arrive and have to ask my fellow lunatics, ‘What year is this? Who’s on the throne? What’s just happened?’ and then bluff my way through however many days it is of pretending I’m totally au fait with a period about which I know very little but which certainly intrigues me. These days I try to hang out in the Tudor kitchen where at least I know a little about Tudor cookery and it has the advantage of usually being warm. Gone are the days when I pretended I was the widow of a basket maker who had sadly met his demise under a cart, his brains all spilled in the mire, God rest him. (Basket makers were neither female nor as cack-handed as I and I had to have some excuse for my want of skill. On the bright side, I do now have two lop-sided quivers, one holding loo rolls and the other kitchen utensils, but any self-respecting Tudor basket maker would fall about laughing at the sight of them.)
Anyway, I digress. The other reason I applied was that I have a dear friend who is an Emeritus Professor of Tudor History and is the leading expert on Anne Boleyn – so he has a vast library and could direct me to the right books. He also has an incredibly low opinion of Philippa Gregory’s fiction and I am beginning to dread the day when he reads my feeble efforts! Although he says he doesn’t mind historical fiction he can’t stand it when writers suggest things that ‘couldn’t possibly have happened or been said.’ So no suggesting young Liz had a baby by Robert Dudley and had it adopted/suffocated/thrown on the fire or, God forbid, that she was actually a man! Well, I haven’t done any of that – but I’m still very nervous...
However, my point today is how much I’m enjoying the process. I’ll hardly make any money, I’m risking a huge telling off from my friend, I nearly had heart failure when I saw the book advertised on Amazon when I hadn’t actually started it and I’m certainly not going to win any prizes. But I am learning so much - far more than I’ve ever learnt from writing fiction (though I did have a jolly fun day out at Crufts doing research about Irish Wolfhounds once!). And I am really enjoying the process of fictionalizing facts and of deciding what to include and what to throw out. The same was all true when I was writing ‘Wha’ever – the teenager’s guide to spinal cord injury’.
Why, then, do I still have the drive to write complete fiction? I have discovered that I love writing both fiction and faction – I even quite enjoyed writing an activity book for teachers – but I have this inexplicable feeling that fiction is the big thing and everything else is somehow lesser (except perhaps poetry). I have no idea if this is born out in sales – obviously Harry Potter has swept the board – but lower down the league tables I’m wondering. Does David Starkey outsell Philippa Gregory or vice versa? How do popular non-fiction writers do? Richard Dawkins, for example or Richard Nelson Bolles (‘What colour is your parachute?’)
We see so few awards for non-fiction and faction. Is there really a hierarchy here in the public mind (as well as buried in mine) or am I imagining it? And if there is, why? I am having to be creative and imaginative as I write my little history book – the difference is that instead of providing story I have to provide knowledge. Is the one seen to be more valuable than the other?