Ponderings by Henri Bensussen
Mendocino Quill's editor, a.k.a. The Maven
“The realist tradition makes . . . the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over all the more simple-minded,” writes Tom McCarthy (London Review of Books, 12/18/14), because, quoting Nietzsche, “truths” are so illusory that “one has forgotten that they are illusions.” … “The real, here,” he states, “is no longer anything like a fact or a secret … and has nothing to do with authenticity.”
Elaine Blair (New Yorker, 1/5/15) thinks modern authors are newly concerned about the “fakeness” of their creations, and are trying to overcome this by “incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions,” to make them authentic.
According to Webster’s, the word authenticity means: “Authoritative,” i.e., “official; entitled to credit or acceptance. Worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to fact or reality (the authentic story); not imaginary, false, or imitation.”
How does a scene in a story become “worthy of acceptance,” the Maven wonders—if it sounds real, does that make it real? Or do readers expect the novels they read to be based on some true event, and thus are disappointed when they find out the experiences have been re-fashioned by art into just another entertaining story? Is that why book titles so often end with the words “A Novel,” to fend off suspicion that the book could be based on true events, and so avoid any need to apologize for not sticking to actual historical facts?
Dramatic writing implies the ability to stand back and observe, to re-fashion an event by imagining a different response than what “really” happened, or to explore and enhance its emotional and sensory context. If the result is “authentic” to the situation, it’s more likely to be the kind of literature readers enjoy.
“Write it real,” William Carlos Williams said. As in science fiction or fantasy, the place or time may not be “real,” and the action may be imagined rather than factual, but the total experience of the story, though stretched like pizza dough, stays “true” to the author’s intention in ways we think of as possible.
Memoir can feed the novel, and dramatic prose can feed memoir to invest it with a hyper-reality. Even the surreal should have the stamp of authentic experience, which, to the Maven, is her usual reality.
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