You can be freer with the facts

May 6, 2005

Nicholas Russell believes authors of non-fiction can learn a lot from creative writing techniques

Despite the growth in the teaching of creative writing in universities, no course in the UK caters for non-fiction writers. Non-fiction either is not thought to be literature or is classified as journalism. Expertise and rigorous research are considered adequate preparation for writing non-fiction.

The Science Communication Group at Imperial College London hopes to change that with its MSc in creative non-fiction, starting in October. By that we mean non-journalistic writing on non-fiction themes for popular audiences.

We want to claim creativity for non-fiction, and part of that will be to revisit the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

Authors of popular books on serious topics borrow fictional conventions because stories are easier to read. But do fictional techniques risk the integrity of factual analysis? The question assumes a clear line between the two, but it might better be thought of as a spectrum that runs from things that are close to objective facts ( Hansard reports, perhaps) through imaginative reconstructions (drama-documentaries or biographies), to socially realistic fiction (fictional events located in personal experiences) and to made-up romances and fantasies.

Non-fiction writing need not stick to the Hansard end. Some biographers hold that interpretation of character demands not just selectivity with documentary evidence but its reordering and tidying up. For a drama-doc to work, it must have three-dimensional characters who interact over issues that are real to an audience.

An object lesson is Michael Frayn's Copenhagen . The play's characters meet in limbo and rerun the details of the controversial meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 using recent historical interpretations. Historians of science have berated Frayn for his potential "misrepresentation" of the historical truth. But this rather ignores the fact that his failure to come up with a single linear narrative may be deliberate, revealing another "truth", that we can never be sure that any historical interpretation is correct.

We are in controversial territory here. For everyone who encourages non-fiction writers to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction, there are others anxious to stress divisions. Thus the physicist Henry Lustig praises the exploration of quantum mechanics in Copenhagen , but then criticises Frayn for allowing audiences to come away with a "post-modernist" view of science - academic code for questioning the absolute truth claims of science.

A non-fiction course should be less prescriptive: students will be free to accept conventions separating fiction from non-fiction, but we also have a duty to provide a critique of those conventions.

Nicholas Russell is senior lecturer and course director, Imperial College London.

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