When is fiction not fiction? When it is documentary fiction.

Since its publication The Thoughtful Dresserby Linda Grant has garnered a bit of feedback.  It has been classified as fiction, but when you read the blurb for the book it sounds a lot like non fiction.

The Thoughtful Dresser tells us how a woman’s hat saved her life in nazi Germany, looks at the role of Department Stores in giving women a public place outside the home, savours the sheer joy of finding the right dress.

This is the point where I became very confused.  When is fiction not fiction? 

Author Iain Sinclair is a bit of an expert on this genre, we have his books but they aren’t exactly what you would call bestsellers, and when he describes his writing you can see why!

Sinclair’s own preferred classification is “documentary fiction”, which allows him plenty of elbow room: “where it needs to be true, it is”. “This is a story of fallible memory, inaccurate or inventive transcriptions, hard-earned prejudices, false starts and accidental epiphanies.” 

 So it would seem that Documentary fiction is based on fact (sort of) with a fair amount of liberty. 

Sinclair in his latest book writes about the suburb of Hackney  in London, and the people who inhabit it.  Many of the characters in the book are real, (and Sinclair does use their actual names), but they possibly wouldn’t recognise themselves in the way that Sinclair has portrayed them.  I find this all very curious.  Why not base characters on actual people, (like a lot of novelists do), change the names, elaborate and expand where necessary, and call it fiction? 

I would be interested to hear from those of you who had read either of these books to see what you think?  Do they read like fiction, non fiction, or perhaps “faction”.

Editor’s note: Jane’s post has raised an interesting issue – some libraries have The Thoughtful Dresser catalogued as fiction, some as non-fiction. We are now moving it into non-fiction, as author Linda Grant has let us know her book is non-fiction rather than fiction.

Lucky Linda?

Those Women on Air girls can really pick the authors to bring to Christchurch. Earlier this year they hosted the extremely talented Linda Grant, who has just made the Man Booker short-list for The clothes on their backs. I’ve loved all Grant’s books and she writes for Vogue and she has a blog about clothes so I would have gone to see her anyway but the the smug feeling of having heard her read from a book that might just win one of the biggies on the literary award scene and from having a signed copy is an added bonus.

Grant is an Orange Prize winner but she’s not the favourite to win this one. Even the bookies were surprised when Salman Rushdie didn’t make the short-list and seem to think Sebastian Barry might be the winner this year.

The women writers on the Oranges Are Not The Only Prize panel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival were generally in agreement that prizes can make a difference to sales and in bringing books to the public’s attention and so it has proved for The clothes on their backs. Just making the longlist saw it jump from selling 11 copies in the week before the announcement to 144 the week after. In library land books on long and short lists certainly generate more reserves, just like a review in The Press or the Listener or a mention on a popular blog.

fascinating piece in the Guardian Online  about Booker deliberations through the 40 years of the prize detailed some of the shenanigans the judges have got up to in picking the winners. The general message seems to be that it’s something of a horse trading exercise so the novels the judges thought should have won but didn’t and their picks as the best of the Bookers are particularly interesting.

More than one judge chose J.G. Farrell’s The seige of Krishnapur as the best winner and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The blue flower as most undeserving loser (‘a grotesque oversight” according to Paul Bailey).

And when The bone people won in 1985 the women’s co-operative who had published it “came up in full island dress to collect it, chanting a Maori praise song”, in Marina Warner’s bemusing phrase.

Linda Grant

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

Plains FM/Women on air set a cracking pace with Anita Amirrezvani,  their first author visit for 2008, and maintained it with their second, Linda Grant.

I’ve always liked Grant; not only is she a clever and entertaining speaker and a writer of good fiction and non-fiction books but she also writes for Vogue, she has an amusing blog and she takes clothes and make-up seriously. After all you “can’t have depths without surfaces”, as she says on her blog.

The clothes on their backs is Grant’s latest novel and it’s about the significance of clothes, among other things. How they define us, how they give us protection and confidence, how they are the last thing to go – “I was left with the clothes on my back”.  

To a family who arrived in Britain from Russia and Poland with no place in the entrenched class system, as Grant’s did, appearances mattered because everything was based on how you looked. Maxims like “only the rich can afford cheap shoes” and “there’s only one thing worse than being skint and that’s looking skint” entered family lore.

Grant generally alternates novels with non-fiction, using the latter to clear her mind of the residue left by all the things she was thinking about while writing her novels.  It’s not surprising then that her next work will be a non-fiction work about clothes and why they matter.

Blogging began as a way to comment on fashion as an enthusiastic amateur,  just for a month or so, but hits from all around the world lead to the realisation that there are a lot of highly intelligent and well-read women out there who are interested in clothes and who like to talk about Chanel as well as the Constitution.

The most torrid blog discussion came out of a small remark about how women over the age of 40 shouldn’t wear leather jackets for fear of looking like mutton dressed as lamb. I personally hate that phrase with a passion, so I too would have waded into all the questions that flooded in regarding just what is permissible after 40, or 50. When do you have to stop showing your arms? Or wearing short skirts?

All in all this was a very entertaining evening and it really whetted the appetitite for the novel and for more author visits from Plains FM/Women on air.

Linda Grant’s authors who care about clothes:

Marcel Proust – “he’s all frocks”

George Eliot – page one of Middlemarch is entirely devoted to a description of Dorothea Brooke’s dress

Jean Rhys

Linda Grant’s author who does not care about clothes:

Jane Austen – she never describes clothes, surprising considering how many balls her characters attend