Sunday, 19 April 2009

Truth and Dare: Gillian Philip

Hands up, confessions and sackcloth all round: yes, I’ve been sniffy about celeb biographies. Well, I’m a convert now, and I don’t even care if they’re ghosted or not. I went on my Easter hols to remote Colonsay and I thought I’d take along a little light gossip, so along came Russell Brand and Jade Goody. And what do you know, I loved ’em both. It turns out that celeb memoirs work the same way for me as books of any genre – the crucial thing is the truth of it all.

Honesty: isn’t that the one thing you ask of a book? (Well, all right – likeable characters and decent spelling obviously come into it.) Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is just hilariously honest (and I don’t just mean ‘frank enough to make your granny wince’). There was a generational divide over the Andrew Sachs affair and I was on the grumpy-old-woman side of it (on grounds of kindness rather than taste). But really, Brand is so truthful, I defy anyone not to respect his writing (even if liking him is a stretch for you). He tells you stuff about himself whether it paints him in a flattering light or not (and mostly it doesn’t). He’s even honest about his dishonesty.

Jade Goody’s swiftly revamped autobiography – I liked that too. The funny thing is, she confesses to being economical with the truth in the first version. She seems to have got that sorted, because Version Two rings touching and true. Maybe it’s skewed in perspective, who knows? But it’s honest in her own terms.

You can tell. Or I’m pretty sure you can. I had a low tolerance for Holden Caulfield when I was younger (‘get a life, young man!’). Now that I’m getting old and crabbit, ironically, I can see where he’s coming from with the ‘phoney’ thing. They say fiction writers tell lies for a living, but there’s true lies as well as the other kind.

I have this ongoing argument with my husband, who hates fantasy fiction (even mine! I ask you!), because ‘it isn’t real.’ To my last breath I’ll argue that fantasy fiction can be as real or unreal as any other kind. All a writer has to do is tell the truth – whether it’s the truth about your holiday in Barcelona or your Journey of Self-Discovery with Chickens. It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth about ancient Romans, the Battle of Britain, hobbits, dragons or mermaids. So long as it’s the truth, it’s real, and for a writer it’s an obligation. Anyway, readers can tell.

There are writers who have told the truth about Hungry Caterpillars, stuffed cats, boy wizards, and dragons called Smaug or Shona. You can tell it comes straight from the marrowbone of the soul. And some writers can take real life, and real people, and fake it. I’ll never convince the husband of that, but I’ll keep trying.

Anyway, Russell Brand’s book has a very funny dedication. Honestly, have a look.


Nick Green said...

All fiction is fantasy!

That is what fiction means.

Gillian Philip said...

Erm... you lost me, Nick.
Are we talking true fantasy, or pack-of-lies fantasy? (Let's just assume we're talking genre, since that's what's generally understood by 'fantasy'.)

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm with you, Gillian - I often think there's more truth in fiction than in non-fiction. Non-fiction tells you the temperature and molecular construction of ice, but fiction makes you feel the cold.

Nick Green said...

1. An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.
2. The act of inventing such a creation or pretense.
3. A literary work whose content is produced by the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact.

All fiction is fantasy. 'Simples!'
At the same time, all good fiction is true. (We can put inverted commas round 'true' if we like).

When people say that 'don't like fantasy 'cos it's not real', what they mean is, they don't like it when the truth comes in a certain kind of packaging. Being an uncharitable sort, I call this imaginative myopia, but I concede it may just be a matter of taste!