The new reality

September 17, 2015

The Lab attended a panel discussion at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, ‘Blurred Lines’, featuring debut authors Oliver Mol and Miles Allinson. It was a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation examining the borderland between fact and fiction – a hybrid genre gaining popularity. 

Oliver and Miles both blur fiction and non-fiction, though they arrive from opposite ends of the spectrum. Oliver Mol published his debut book, Lion Attack!, as non-fiction, but has said it is ‘70% non-fiction, 30% fiction’. Despite a detailed afterword in which he separates what happened from what was invented or embellished, Oliver doesn’t like the categorisation of fiction and non-fiction. Quoting Scott McClanahan, he explained, “You don’t look at a painting and say, ‘This is a fictional painting, that’s a non-fictional painting’ – it’s just a painting.” Asked, then, why he decided to write an afterword to distinguish what did and did not happen, Oliver explained that it felt “more honest”. The implication being that there is a greater truth in conceding that all non-fiction contains fictional elements.

Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals, winner of the Victorian Premier’s Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript, on the other hand, is a work of fiction. Yet a cursory Google search reveals a list of biographical details that connect the narrator and the author – both are called Miles, both are artists, both hail from Melbourne, to name a few similarities. Asked why he explicitly drew on autobiography, Miles explained that there is greater authority and authenticity when the reader believes that the author is writing from a position of experience, rather than imagination. 

As for what is driving the increasing popularity of this hybrid genre, Miles cited Karl Ove—a Norwegian writer who produced a six volume, 3,600 page autobiographical novel, My Struggle—as a key influence. Karl Ove’s decision to write ‘directly and plainly’ about his life—in minute, mundane detail—was born from ‘fiction fatigue’ – a gut feeling that fictional stories were always at arms-reach from reality. Yet Karl Ove still published his autobiography as a fictional novel, despite using real names and real events, suggesting that all narratives are fabricated to an extent. Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk are other writers devoted to this grey space, blending fact and fiction. What unites all of these writers is a belief that the most truthful representation of reality is a mixture of both fiction and non-fiction. Consciously or not, they are part of a broader artistic movement that has been gaining momentum over the last five years. 

Reality hunger 

In 2010 David Shields published “Reality Hunger”, an artistic manifesto advancing the argument that writers are increasingly bringing “larger and larger chunks of reality into their art.” It was motivated, in part, by the same fiction fatigue that Karl Ove experienced: the observation that writers and readers, himself included, were tired of “made up stories.” Realistic fiction, Shields argued, is no longer realistic; readers are seeking greater authenticity which fiction fails to deliver. This is as true for the mainstream as it is of artists. For example, Shields points to the voracious cultural appetite for documentaries, memoir, and reality TV—cultural productions that purport to capture reality. Yet each of these modes implicitly contains fictional elements: documentaries are contrived, memoir is too often embellished or fabricated for the sake of entertainment, and reality TV is as scripted and staged as any soap opera. In Shields’ words, “It is precisely the lack of reality that is making people hungry for it.” 

What, then, is this authentic reality we are seeking? It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s a difficult term to define. As Shields explains, “Reality … is a meaningless word without quotation marks.” But what we know is that many of our meaning-makers are blurring fact and fiction “to the point of invisibility” in representations of 21st century reality. 

It’s only one theory, but perhaps in a digital world that creates a fissure between online and IRL identities, in a world with increasingly plausible virtual realities, it might be argued that the most accurate depiction of reality requires the distinction of fiction and non-fiction to dissolve all together. The grey space in between may become the most truthful representation of our new “reality”.