Brendan James Murray, on the sometimes fine line between fact and fiction in narrative nonfiction.
There’s currently a turf-war being fought on the Australian literary scene.
It never occurred to me that I might get caught up in it. In fact – somewhat naively – I wasn’t even aware that the war was happening until I waded into the midst of the battle.
In my defence, when my book The Drowned Man (Echo Publishing) went to print in July of last year, I was at least aware that I had marked my creation as an outsider. The Drowned Man is a piece of narrative nonfiction, a relatively new and controversial genre just beginning to find its feet in Australia.
The story I tell in The Drowned Man, is a true one, a mystery I stumbled upon during a chance encounter in a fish-’n’-chip shop. Had a gay man been secretly murdered on HMAS Australia during the Second World War?
The Drowned Man is a search for the answer, almost stymied by cover-up and silence. In the end, it brings us to the lies that have shrouded our understanding of war, and especially of war at sea.
Most of my feedback has been positive. However, the negativity has, without exception, centred around the problematic nature of narrative nonfiction (sometimes referred to as creative or literary nonfiction). And this is where I feel that I must make a firm declaration in defence of my chosen genre.
First though, it needs to be said that some of the controversy attached to this type of writing is understandable. When James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces proved to be largely invented, readers felt justifiably betrayed. In fact, that book should not even be considered narrative nonfiction; it is fiction or, at best, “based on a true story.”
Certainly, it is my belief that if elements of such texts are particularly uncertain, the writer of narrative nonfiction has a responsibility to acknowledge that within the text, as I do in a chapter entitled ‘Fact and Fiction’.
The real issue here, though, is a question of genre. Exactly what is narrative nonfiction? This is a debate that goes right to the core of how humans in all cultures communicate through stories.
When our partners, family or friends ask us about our day at work, we construct narratives. It’s how humans communicate experience. Nobody remembers what happened on a minute-by-minute, word-by-word level, but we relate these narratives as constructions, truthfully, from the heart.
Narrative nonfiction isn’t about being disingenuous. It’s about taking readers to a place, and a time, in a way that other genres and styles cannot.
When I create a scene in which a naval officer’s jaw twitches on hearing reports of homosexuality on his ship, what I’m communicating to readers is that he was angry, which he absolutely was.
When I recreate a conversation from 70 years ago, it’s because I know that the conversation definitely took place. Did the commander of HMAS Australia report to his captain that a homosexual relationship was at the centre of a murder on board? Absolutely, uncategorically. Did he use the precise words I put in his mouth in that recreated scene, and move in the ways I said he did? Unlikely.
Readers of narrative nonfiction understand this. It’s an underestimation of their intelligence to assume otherwise.
In the case of historical writing, academics may be uncomfortable with invented dialogue and poetic descriptions of past events. This is completely fair, and in keeping with their training and discipline. If a writer recreated a scene or some dialogue, why should historians believe anything else they write?
What we need to understand, though, is that academic history and narrative nonfiction are not the same. They have overlapping but ultimately different aims. In this way, the turf war is needless. To me, the relationship between academic history and narrative nonfiction is analogous to the relationship between photography and painting.
Narrative nonfiction – like a great deal of impressionistic and even surrealist art – is honest.
The stories are true, and, I believe, capable (in some cases) of bringing readers far closer to emotional truths than academic history can.
The most moving feedback I have received has been the total strangers who have told me that The Drowned Man (and especially one battle scene) brought them to tears. Had I written the text in a more academic style, I do not believe this emotional resonance would have been possible.
If I have done my job, readers taste the seawater in their mouths, feel the sonorous booms of the naval cannons within their chests. They see the dead not just as names, dates and birthplaces, but as human beings they could reach out and touch.
The Drowned Man was challenging to research and write. There were conversations off the record, faded memories, exaggerations and confusion. In some cases, I had to change things to protect people. I could be criticised for leaving some things out, keeping other things in, showing bias in favour of homosexuals, distorting events through a modern lens.
But the narrative is a true one. It’s narrative non-fiction.
The philosophers would perhaps have argued that, ultimately, there are no absolute truths. Maybe they were right, but one thing I know for sure is that narrative nonfiction is a genre about truth in all its interpretive complexity.
Brendan James Murray
Brendan James Murray grew up on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and has been writing for as long as he can remember. Though his first love is nonfiction, he also enjoys writing creatively; his short stories have twice received National Literary Awards from the Fellowship of Australian Writers. In addition to writing, Brendan is a teacher in a large government school.