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Irony Alert!: This blog may be a tad contrary.

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May 26, 2008


Pavlov's Cat

The name thing is odd, and I am still pondering it. It seemed sweet and intriguing in the 1985 story 'Little Helen's Sunday Afternoon', but there is something quite different going on here that I can't put my finger on. I'm guessing that to some extent, whatever other reasons there may be, Garner maybe simply decided it was fatuous to give a character so close to her 'real' persona a different name. I'm sure it helps to have so classic(al) a name -- my own, for example, would only work in a Barry Humphries-esque satire. If one were called Mary or Catherine or Julia, on the other hand, there wouldn't be a problem. Not that problem, anyway.

I really enjoyed reading this, especially the teased-out thoughts about the fiction/nonfiction issue, so much more knowledgeable and intelligent than anything I've read about it offline to date.

Ampersand Duck

I keep thinking how close 'Hel' is to 'Hell', and wondering if it's as simple as that...


On the memoir, narrative, fiction thing, I recently read 'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith and it was very striking how non-memoir-y it was and what a story-teller she is - so unlike most other contemporary young women writers (and old women writers).


Great post El, I really enjoyed reading it.

Pav it's 'funny' that you say you could only use your name as a protagonist's name in a Barry Humphries-esque posted a comment at my place to the effect that the author I mentioned had a very Henry James-sounding name and that made me think it might be fun to do a meme about what writer would have a character with one's name in it.


I wondered about the 'hell' thing, AD.

PC - perhaps she was working from a journal and when the work started shaping into a novel, she couldn't be bothered to change the 'Helen' bit, tho she's done it before (I presume).

As for name meme -- sounds great, Laura, but my surname would let me down, tho it was part of a 70s television show title.

Susoz -- I guess White Teeth and other hysterical realist novels like The Corrections tend to have ensemble characters/multi-plotlines, which would make them different from most memoir at a structural level. (However, from what I understand, at least one character (name forgotten) is based on Smith herself -- she did have middle class liberal envy and yearnings to play the cello like said character.) Which is not to say that you couldn't do multiplot in literary non-fiction: Random Family has two major intertwined narratives.

I think it's an interesting thought, that while the novel had it roots in a biographical form, things have come full circle and memoir now outstrips the novel in sales (tho who knows what the comparative fluctuations have been and what they might mean).

Re: the subject of 'emotional truth' and different forms of writing: i read this in a letter to the editor of the NY by from a Prof of English, John Halperin:

'I have always thought that fiction is a much more reliable dispenser of truth about its author than history. The author of a novel usually tells the truth about what he thinks -- he doesn't attempt to hide. But in any sort of history-writing (including autobiography), there will be some holding back, some obfuscation of facts that don't think the writer's ideas about his subject. He can refer to what supports his view and leave out the rest. But fiction is more likely to produce a personal truth because it tends to reveal the writer more completely.'

I don't know that I agree entirely with the above, but it's interesting.


I am very slow to respond here - I was less interested in the non-fiction/fiction issue than in the issues raised by Peter Rose over the kind of ethical dilemmas covered in The Spare Room, and I'm still wrestling in my head with those.

But this is a great post, El, and the reading you've done on the non-fiction matter sounds great - I'm going to get hold of the Gornick book. Though I think like Garner, I'm more interested in whether the product is 'a little machine that runs'.

But I have noticed recently that I'm tired of boring people in novels, of the same people I've met in too many novels, and most of all, of being promised all sorts of things by the profiling, reviewing and interviewing surrounding a novel; and I don't know how much this has to do with the fall of narrative you describe, the rise of mass culture, or the sheer lack of tonal range amongst the many travellers in the fiction writing pack.

Just quickly, I loved The Spare Room, because it is its own 'thing', dare I say it, its own person from go to woe. I absolutely adored Hanif Kureishi's latest novel just because of the voice and story running alongside each other companionably, in a muscular, sweaty, occasionally fractious jog from start to finish. It was such a pleasure, and I'm finding it less often, and can't help wondering why. Think I'll go read some history, reread some faves, watch some movies!! and come back to fiction.

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