Sunday, 17 December 2006

Alex Miller, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, gave a lecture at the State Library of Victoria recently which has been edited for inclusion in The Australian's Review supplement this weekend. I forsee that it will go largely unremarked. This is a shame. It is very good.

In it, Miller examines the way that different forms of remembering — including both history and fiction — enrich our understanding of ourselves and our culture.

I read the piece on the train yesterday coming back from Pennant Hills, where I lived until a year ago. What took me north yesterday was a mechanical problem with my car. Surrounded by memories, many of which I have been glad to distance myself from, Miller's words struck me as very true. The effect of the piece titled, sentimentally, 'Written in Our Hearts', is cumulative. It is most compelling at the end. These quotes come from near the end of the piece.

The novel is often also the history of the so-called losers rather than the powerful ones, giving voice to those unremarked women and men who slide into the dark and leave scarcely a trace of their passing. This sense of the novel, and in fiction generally, of the private and the unofficial, the unrecorded and the silent finding its voice is one reason we are so powerfully drawn to the genre.

And I would also add another genre of writing that Miller leaves unremarked: literary journalism. The writing of non-fiction using writerly techniques is a form of expression somewhere between history and the novel. It allows the writer to explore in greater detail the reality of his or her choosing, but also with recourse to the compelling premise of literature: that empathy is the goal of the writing.

Which is related to another element of what Miller talks about: relative truth.

The real test of whether we succeed in our writing, no matter if what we write is history or fiction, is not whether we believe what we write to be true — though we must believe this — but whether the people we write about are able to celebrate in our work the truth they know of themselves.

Even if they are dead. Even if they cannot read it themselves, what is written should reflect the reality of the subject honestly. This must be the foundation of empathy.

This essay is timely, coming as it does at a time when there has been much debate in the media in this country about the relative merits of history and fiction. Miller seems to be seeking a way out of the contest of claim and counter-claim that has been sapping our patience and causing unnecessary friction between the two camps: academics and novelists. A third way.

I submit for consideration a third party, also. Why journalists have been left out of the equation is a separate issue. But presumably they are not to be taken as seriously as the other two groups. I think this is a shame. Journalists — who deal mainly in facts but are also often extremely accomplished and engaging prose stylists — are often shunned. Without deserving it.

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