As you may know, I’ve just written a story about events in 1970’s Cambodia. A real place in time, but I’d be horrified if it was dubbed historical fiction. It was an attempt to find a metaphor for something that defied the everyday human scale of experience. I am a historian by training and can’t quite see the raison d’etre of historical fiction. Either it is good literary writing and poor history (imagination over fact), or good history and rather dull literature (dry litany of facts). My Cambodia, as with my Omagh, my Florida, my Wakefield, my Corfu and other fictional settings of mine) exist only in my mind – I have never visited any of them. I haven’t even really fictionalised them, since I don’t really spend time describing them, other than their symbolic meaning for the character.
So much for referencing places and periods. How about cultural markers such as songs or films? Roberto Bolano drops in Mexican film maker Robert Rodriguez in his opus “2666”, but deftly turns it into fiction by talking about a fictional prequel from which his trademark actual style germinated. The problem with referencing films is a) the reader may not have seen the film and b) the writer is asking the film itself to carry meaning within their own book. I am always skeptical about pulling this off, since either the writer digresses into an exposition on the film, or undercooks it and expects the reader to share the same reading of the film as the writer himself. The same goes for dropping in other books into your own. Songs are not quite so awkward, as you might be able to quote a snippet of lyric if you’re lucky.
Real people pose problems because again there are several readings of them – witness the plethora of biographies on the same person, taking entirely different lines about their subject. However, if like my use of place, you take a name/signifier of a person, but then run with it in an entirely new, wholly fictional direction, as Oli did with Nick Nolte, then that is absolutely fresh and does not fall under the restrictions I am debating here.
Okay, now the biggie. rather than merely referencing, how about homages to writers and artists we like and admire? Dan is very open to namechecking his influences behind his work, Murakami and Tracy Emin etc. He’s already cited the influences behind his new book. The thing is, even though I read “Norwegian Wood”, firstly I didn’t make any connection to “Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall” so that passed me by and influenced my reading experience not one iota; and secondly, that is just as well, since although I loved some of Murakami’s following works (the weirder themed ones), I hated “Norwegian Wood”. If Dan’s blurb had cited it as an influence and I’d been browsing in a bookshop, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. (There’s an echo here with when I used to cite in my submission letters, which current authors or books mine was like – through gritted teeth – and I’m convinced I always picked strategically wrong authors and did myself no favours).
Maybe this last point about citing influences is merely one about timing. Once the book is out and is starting to provoke public debate and the author is getting asked questions about it, then of course discussing influences behind it is absolutely valid. I would just favour the public opening up the debate, rather than the author being very open and honest and slightly spoon feeding in this regard. Is this not the author closing off options for the reader, whereas if the reader makes the connections for themself and then brings it to a debate on/with the author then that may have more validity and maybe suggest a more active, two-way relationship.
Confession time, in my novel I do cite “Marathon Man” the bit where Larry Olivier sets to work on Dustin Hoffman’s teeth with pliers. So I guess I don’t even practise what I’m preaching here. But in the main I do try and leave out specific references. I find them distracting, dating of the work (especially pop cultural references, imagine citing a Big Brother or X-Factor contestant in a novel) and sometimes I think the writer overburdens them with the amount of work he expects such a reference to convey. It may just mean that the author has actually skimmed on the work needed for that particular paragraph, by relying on the crutch of the reference.