Two things, information and a rant

First the good stuff, Shaun Levin, excellent writer and tutor, is giving a course via New Writing South on Saturday 9 & Sunday 10 June. It’s called Making a Living for Writers and it’s geared towards writers looking to increase their income from arts-based activities: residencies, workshops, exhibitions, etc. If you have any ambitions to become a working writer, this is a great place to start. Book here:

Now the rant – let’s call it The Error of Veracity

Marcel Berlins, in Wednesday’s Guardian, has been commentating on Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, an award-winning novel written by a woman with agoraphobia. This is significant because the novel is set in Canada, a place she’s never visited – she did all her research in a library.

This is what he says:

I have to say, right away, that I enjoyed Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, last week named the Costa Novel of the Year. But one aspect disconcerted me and diminished my liking of it. Penney, a sufferer from agoraphobia, had been unable to travel to Canada, where her book is set. She conducted all her research in the British Library. No doubt some Canadian readers with experience of their country’s wilderness in winter will point out that Penney hasn’t got it quite right. They will be small in number compared to readers who would be ignorant of any mistakes or, if they knew, would not care. To me, though, her lack of direct knowledge matters. As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there.

Why? Science fiction and historical fiction both require the writer to describe places they’ve never been. As L P Hartley famously wrote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And Penney’s book is set not just in Canada, but in 1867. He goes on to say:

True, when I read a book about a place foreign to me, I may not know whether the writer’s portrayal is accurate; so why should it bother me? First – and here I wear my hat as book reviewer – there is often a quivering of the antennae which tells me that, even if I haven’t been to the place in the book, the writer doesn’t know it well, either. Something about it feels wrong. The writer will make sure he gets the name of a restaurant right, but will he have listened to the way people talk, noticed the little manners and eccentricities of life, smelled the smells?

This is bunkum in my view. What Berlins picks up on is bad writing, not lack of experience of a place. If a writer can’t convince the reader of the veracity of the experience, then they’ve failed, and I read enough short stories by people who are steeped in their city or country and still can’t make it ‘real’ to be confident that it’s lack of writing skills, not lack of direct experience, that shows.

If we buy travel books we have a right to expect the details to be factually precise, but fiction requires something more complex. Not only is there the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, there is also the writer’s ability to create – yes create – a place, whether it’s real or not, in a way that gives it substance. And substance is what matters, not accurate detail. I don’t give a damn if Vikram Seth (to pick a random example) has trains running to stations that don’t exist (and I have no idea if he does or doesn’t) because Seth’s India is real to me. It was real before I went there and it’s no more or no less real now that I’ve been. It’s a deeper reality that requires the interaction of people and place to be consistent with the writer’s intention that matters.

This focus on ‘reality’ concerns me, and many writers. It’s linked to the persistent nonsense that you can’t write outside your own gender (which even Berlins has to admit is rubbish) or your own race (a more politically correct nonsense and a disturbing one which threatens to ghettoise literature) and it’s a feeble way of approaching the quality of fiction.

Take me for example. Leaving aside any claims I have as a writer of fiction, I’ve visited over thirty countries and lived in four. But I get lost all the time, even in my ‘home’ cities of Brighton and London, both of which I’ve lived in for over a decade. Colleagues are used to getting calls from me, as I stand with my street map, trying to work out how to get from A – B, even if I’ve been from A – B a dozen times, or a hundred. Once, infamously, I got lost between London Bridge station and my office, a journey that I had completed successfully, every working day, for over five months. I was so disoriented I had to get a cab. Does this mean I can’t write about London? I think not. Does it mean that when any novel of mine gets published (from my mouth to the ears of the literary gods on that subject) my publisher will have to put out a press release saying that I’m cartographically challenged? Hardly.

I’ve written one story about the Isle of Wight, a place I know like the back of my hand, and got an email from an old friend when it was published, pointing out that I’d relocated a pub to the wrong corner of the street. Funnily enough, I lived in that pub for two and a half years … I’d just forgotten the landmarks. It didn’t matter to me, the publisher or any of the readers that the pub was three hundred yards out of place – in fact most of the comments I’ve had on that story have come from Islanders who say how exactly it matches their experience of growing up in Sandown in the seventies. So they all failed to see the error too, or thought it didn’t matter, in light of the greater veracity of fiction – which is the veracity that twists and shapes experience to tell a deeper truth of the emotions.

It’s hardly surprising that people aren’t reading novels if they have the idea that, as well as enjoying them, they should be running some kind of internal audit for factual accuracy. It turns the immersive process of reading into some ghastly tick-box exercise. Marcel Berlins may get paid to do this, but most of us pay for the privilege of buying a novel and losing ourselves in it. And that’s the operative word – losing. We choose to get lost in a writer’s invention, not to plod through it with a street map in one hand and a railway timetable in the other, checking the veracity of destinations and journey times.

I wish Stef Penney all success and shall read her novel without the faintest desire to get a map of Canada and catch her out.


  1. TitaniaWrites
    15th February 2007

    Spot on, Kay. I read that piece in the Guardian and couldn’t believe what I was reading. I’ve always hated the “write about what you know” instruction, and now we’re supposed to only “write about where we know”? I have a story set in Antarctica, another set in Las Vegas. Never been to either of those places, but that’s where the story was, that’s where it had to be. Couldn’t be in London, nope. Wouldn’t work. How dare Mr Berlins dictate to us where to set a story or a novel? You’re 100% right, if we’re finding the setting of a piece of writing unconvincing, it’s the writing, not the geographical facts.

  2. Kay Sexton
    15th February 2007

    Glad you agree with me, Tanya. I think the thing that depresses me most of all is that those of us who’ve come to fiction to escape the strictures of journalism will be seeing this as a back-door introduction of the same restraints that ‘reporting’ has always imposed.

  3. Kay Sexton
    15th February 2007

    Oops, sorry Tania. I ‘y’d you in error!

  4. Charles Lambert
    16th February 2007

    I couldn’t stop wondering if he’d ever read Penelope Fitzgerald, who set novels in pre-revolutionary Russia, Holderlin’s Germany and Italy in the 50s, which she’d visited briefly as a tourist. If he hasn’t read her, he ought to be ashamed. If he has, he’s talking through his arse.

  5. Kay Sexton
    17th February 2007

    I suspect the latter, Charles1

  6. Linera Lucas
    28th February 2007

    Thanks for this essay. If we only wrote about what we knew, our stories would get progressively smaller, smaller (imagine the typeface getting smaller here) until they were invisible.

    Did any Canadians write in? Or was the author’s research so complete that readers felt they were there?

    Nice to see Penelope Fitzgerald mentioned; she’s one of my favorite writers.


Leave a Reply