Oxonian writers Joanna Kavenna (recent writer-in-residence at St Peter's), Gabriel Josipovici (St Edmund Hall, 1959), Benjamin Markovits (Univ, 1997) discussed the place of imagination in a world of docu-drama and 'real life' stories.

Five writers debate the limits of materialism and realism, in art and literature - and offer a passionate defence of the alchemical imagination in a fact-based worldWriters debated the limits of materialism and realism, in art and literature at Waterstones in Oxford 

By Philip Clark

A crowd crammed into Oxford's Waterstones last month for a discussion based on Alchemy - Writers on Truth, Lies and Fiction, a new book which examines the nebulous territory that writers inhabit between reality and fiction.

The book is introduced by Iain Sinclair, primarily known for his psychogeographic studies of the changing face of London, with an essay that seeds ideas in readers’ minds. Fellow writers Gabriel Josipovici (St Edmund Hall, 1959), Joanna Kavenna (former writing fellow at St Antony's, and writer-in-residence at St Peter's), Benjamin Markovits (Univ, 1997), Partou Zia and Anakana Schofield (the last two not present at the event) then explore the themes in a sequence of five further essays.Gabriel Josipovici (St Edmund Hall, 1959)

Sinclair began the evening by proclaiming alchemy “…a rich metaphor that I work with a lot” and relating it to the process of writing in the very particular sense that: “you carry on with your own foolishness for several years, repeatedly doing the same thing, until base material becomes gold.” 

This book, he added, has a clear sense of organic unity: questions about unreliable narration, about where fiction topples over into non-fiction and elements of biography, had obviously focused the minds of this disparate group of writers – perpetual obsessions perhaps, but especially so at a time when the historically motivated Hilary Mantel (below) and the heightened reality of the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård have both managed to be major publishing success stories.hilary Mantel

Joanna Kavenna, whose essay Realia is set in nineteenth-century Oxford, quickly reinforced Sinclair’s analogy between the rituals of writing and the work produced. “You reiterate this insane ritual every day, getting up and writing, in order to generate this unreal world which you know is completely fictitious and unreal because you devised it to be so – and yet this world has to feel authentic to you, or else it can have no purpose.” 

Realism, as a literary form, Kavenna explained, has its own conventions: “but how to make whatever deviation from reality one is trying to convey meaningful – this was the question I posed myself. My essay is about a fictitious person, a novelist, who is facing this dilemma.” 

For Gabriel Josipovici a string of painful episodes in his own life – culminating in the suicide of a close friend and the death of a much loved dog – obliged him to face the realisation that his work was not up to expressing his emotions: “I needed to transmute all that pain into a form to make it liveable; to stop myself from going mad.”

The dialogue-led novels he had been writing were designed, he explained, to escape from the need for an omniscient narrator and he found the solution he was looking for through music. Discovering late 1960s/early-1970s works by Peter Maxwell Davies (especially Worldes Bliss and Ave Maria Stella) and Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time–music that expressed itself through glacially paced, labyrinthine structures – gave his writing a new rhythm: “I could now write in bigger breaths,” he said.

James EllroyConnections between writing and the landscape of music as a way of re-rooting the written form reminded Sinclair of the American crime writer James Ellroy’s idea that “geography is destiny.” Certain landscapes, Sinclair outlined, could allow a sort of writing by “playing on the edge of your consciousness; by ventriloquising voices in your head.” But, as we’re now living in this age of Brexit, he said, we must think not only about the physical migration of characters, but also cultural migration – which brought him neatly to Benjamin Markovits whose essay, The Real Story, concerns his own relocation as a college graduate from the US to Germany. 

Markovits explained that moving to Germany to play professional basketball was the most exciting thing that, to date, had happened in his life. “Even then I knew I wanted to be a writer, but my memoir was rejected because I was told it was too quiet – nothing happened. 

“And this was, don’t forget, the most exciting thing that had happened in my life and yet nobody was interested. Many years later it was published – but only after I’d rewritten it as a novel. Novels happen in that gap between experience and drama. That’s why new writers are usually keen to kill characters off, or make them into alcoholics – anything to crank up the drama. To get anything published you have to make it at least two, or possibly three or four times, as interesting as the source material.” 

Notting Hill EditionsIain Sinclair then pondered a bigger reality: the weirdness, as he described it, of publishing books when publishers are obsessing over the economics to the extent that they sometimes actively oppose individual authors’ pet projects. Joanna Kavenna raised the figure of Knausgård, whose meticulously detailed six-part memoir, My Struggle, has proved such an unlikely success, and recalled talking to an editor at a publishing house – “which shall remain nameless” – who told her that, once sales of books had collapsed, and the previous holy grail of selling lots of these books had vanished, publishers could publish the books that they believed in, and that their authors wanted to write – the paradox being that then these books actually sold.

Sinclair brought the evening to a close with a contrary thought – “the economics mean the relationship between authors and publishers exists in a state of tension,” he claimed. And despite authors inventing fiction and taking readers out of the everyday: “books can become an excuse for what we’re doing now, talking about the book when the book itself might quickly disappear. Readers like the reality of seeing an author re-writing their book in the moment through live analysis and discussion – which can be a challenge.”

Alchemy – Writers on Truth, Lies and Fiction (Notting Hill Editions) £14.99

Philip Clark (born 1972) is a composer-turned-improviser and music journalist who writes about classical music, jazz, free improvisation and rock music for specialist music magazines The Wire, Gramophone, The Strad and Limelight, and for The Guardian, Financial Times and The Spectator. Currently he is writing the official biography of the jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck.

Images © Philip Clark, Oxford University Images, Notting Hill Editions


By Ed Parker

A very interesting and challenging exercise discussing truth, fiction and reality. In a sense there is no capital "T" TRUTH, but there are many truths that one should be open to. I lived in Papua New Guinea for 12 years and that tipped almost all of my concepts about truth, fiction and reality on their head. Ethnocentrism so ensnares each one of us, that we find it almost impossible to see what reality in fact is. In many circumstances well written fiction is more truthful than what purports to be an historical and realistic account. I think it was Joseph Campbell that argued that in today's scientific world we have frequently taken away the stories that people live by. What a sad loss.