Cheltenham Literature Festival: A Question of Interpretation

Yesterday morning, Nicolette Jones chaired a riveting discussion between authors Blake Morrison and Jonathan Coe about the position of the personal and the political in literary fiction. Morrison’s latest novel South of the River and Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls do not claim to be ‘political’ novels but both writers are acutely aware of the context the are writing from and about, as Morrison says, “It seems natural to cross the personal with policital, even if that’s not the intention.” Both authors seemed to feel a duty to help people understand a bit more of our rapidly expanding, incomprehensible world. Morrison informs us that “We live in a world of half truths and half lies,” and Coe suggests that fiction is perhaps the only way we can glean some truth because, unlike the media, “It doesn’t try to pull a fast one on you, it is the most truthful thing there is because is starts of on the solid ground of stating that its origin is fictional and therefore you’re under no false illusions.”

The conversation progressed to consider the personal within the fictional and to what extent the ‘author’ is part of the character(s) in their novels. Morrison, who has written his memoirs in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (the film, starring Colin Firth has just been released) doesn’t believe that there is much of ‘him’ in his latest work, “Memoir is written from your own experiences, fiction’s abot the lives you haven’t had, imagining other lives and getting into the consciousness of those lives.” However Coe admits to drawing on personal experiences for the (female) protagonist in his novel, “Maybe it’s because I haven’t written an autobiography or my memoirs, I have had no outlet for writing about my own life so it manifests itself in my fiction.”

It’s not as straight-forward as drawing a line between memoir and fiction though, is it? Surely a writer has only their own experience to draw on? Yet Coe says, “Writing allows you to get into a perspective different from your own”, even if it isn’t your ‘real’ perspective – the perspective that you have attached to your sense of identity – how could you possibly write (convincingly or otherwise) about something you have never experienced, seen, read, heard or touched. Is it a question of interpretation? When in ‘character’ an author is able to position themselves in a different mode of interpretation, to imagine a different response from normal but at one and the same time there must be the realisation that this interpretation has also come from within, from knowledge and experience.

Reading is then another form of interpretation. Issue 27 of The Reader features an essay by Raymond Tallis on Ian McEwan‘s Saturday, it also discusses the position of the contemporary novelist and the aim of literary fiction, “to leave a more lasting and different kind of impression” rather than just giving readers a “rat-a-tatting good read”. Coe made a pertinent comment about the relationship between reading and writing, “You don’t realise what book you’ve written until people read it”, interesting when you consider the extent of readerly interpretation on bringing the book to life. Thoughts in the author’s mind are deciphered into words on a page, those words are then unravled in the reader’s mind, with their own set of experiences construing a meaning. Authors interpret our world in their fiction, we interpret their fiction in our world.

Posted by Jen Tomkins